Yes, Food Stamps are More Important than Defense

On Friday, in a move that shocked, truly shocked America, President Obama said that food stamps were more important than Defense. Since this sort of prioritization is one of the fundamental differences between the US extreme right (aka Republicans) and the US center-right (also known as the Democrats), the fact that this caused an uproar among Republicans should also stun you. Republicans warn us that slashing America's defense budget until it is only double the next largest nations will cripple us, Democrats call the Republicans meanies, and everyone ignores the point.

The point is that food stamps are more important than Defense, for a fundamental reason - it is because we subsidize food stamps that we aren't having food riots like the middle east. Without food stamps, poor Americans would be starving - period. This is both bad for America's public image, but even worse for its civil function, and for its much articulated claims that we are, in fact, getting better rather than worse. Only because of food stamps and related programs can such claims seem even superficially credible.

Let's run the numbers. One in seven households in America receives food stamps, and one in six would qualify. Nearly 1/2 of all American children live in households that receive food stamps. One in eight food stamp households cares for an elder, one in five cares for a disabled non-elderly adult. One out of every five recipient households has *no* other countable income - more than 7 million Americans total.

Cancel food stamps and 7 million Americans drop to zero income. More than 2/3 of those households include children. The average food stamp recipient household owns $101 of goods and savings - total.

Food stamps also have other effects. They are the social program that is most beneficial to the overall economy, because the subsidies are spent immediately. They act as a subsidy to the larger food system - and in fact, when one out of seven Americans requires food stamps to feed their family, they act as an overall subsidy on our food system. Just like many poor nations, we are subsidizing food for a population that cannot afford it otherwise.

Given that food represents a tiny portion of most household incomes - between 10 and 12 percent - the fact that Americans cannot afford food in large numbers is significant. Much of this is attributable to the fact that medical care and food are often the only "fungible" expenses in a low income household. Cutting back on food and medicine are the only ways to get by when an unexpected expense arises. It gives us a measure of the costs of all our supposed previous "growth" - low income Americans can't afford housing *and* food, and almost no one can afford medical care.

Fundamentally, America subsidizes food for precisely the same reasons other nations do - not merely because it is the moral choice, but because it keeps us out of the streets. If Republicans don't know this yet, they'll certainly find out.


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Someone once tried to put another program into the context of how would it help with the defense of the Country. The person replied that it doesn't. It was one of the things that made the Country worth defending.

Food stamps and a safety net for the less well off is one of the things that makes the US worth defending. If we didn't have those, then spending money on defense would be penny wise and pound foolish.

I wonder if the the following is a fair argument:
Most military volunteers of low rank come from low income households.
This means a large percent of future volunteers are presently supported by food stamps.
Therefore the food stamp program is actually essential defence spending; the future of armed forces depends on it.

By MissouriMule (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

Did you contact your Representative and tell them that you wanted the Debt Ceiling raised and that a compromise of spending cuts and revenue increases was the better way to lower our debt? Last night President Obama asked all of us to contact our Representative. I did.

MissouriMule -- the number of servicemen on foodstamps is a disgrace; it's a clear sign we aren't paying them enough. It's also, as you say, evidence that food stamps really are *directly* essential to defense.

I like what daedalus2u brought up even more -- that programs like this make our nation worth defending. They're also another kind of defense. Defense against bad forture, which can strike any of us. Children are our future, even the children who had the misfortune of being born poor, and they are our best investment. We defend ourselves from future failure by increasing spending on schools, childcare, health care, and, yes, food stamps.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

"If Republicans don't know this yet, they'll certainly find out."

Alas, you may be overmisunderestimating the power of the religion our 'political parties' have spawned.

I'm afraid I have some neighbors who will, definitely, starve and die, and take their children with them, before they change their minds about how things work.

Riots in the streets will happen- but for other reasons; not because children are hungry. It will be the fault of those "liberals", etc, etc. The rhetoric is setting up, like concrete.

Calli and Eric: did not occur to me that current employees (and their families) of the armed forces required food stamps to survive.
I guess old folk like me all remember the army base where low ranks lived in barracks and ate at mess halls.

By MissouriMule (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

There needs to be a lot more teaching of and understanding of Maslow. Food is at the base. Without it the rest doesn't stand. It's really that simple.

I sometimes really regret what liberals have done to undermine peopleâs independence with all the handouts, but I highly concur with what Sharon writes here. Frankly, as much as I hate to think about it, weâre going to need more wealth transference going on in the future as well, but first, defense:

The amount we spend on âdefenseâ is a disgrace. I neednât tell anyone here how much the defense monster is out of control, and thatâs coming from someone who, over the past years, was all for a strong defense. But donât worry, the US cannot keep the defense spending up much longer. That Obama has continued the wars and all the imperialistic bullying â well, if *he* canât slow or stop this beast, then no one can. But again, our ability to continue feeding the defense machine is coming to an end whether a president likes it or not.

Not too long ago, Stuart Staniford did several pieces on the so-called Singularity, that supposed time thatâs soon to come where human knowledge and technology takes off on some vertical asymptote and everybody lives happily ever after in some computer Utopia. ( and and especially: in which one commenter identified as âThe Caretakerâ said: âI see the combination of peak oil and automation greatly increasing inequality across society. The stats show this has already happened over the last twenty years, as the benefits of productivity increases have gone to the elite while wages stagnate. The future is heading towards an economic system where the globalized elite reap larger and larger productivity gains from automation, while also being the only class able to afford oil and the easy transportation lifestyle that is seen as normal today. They use the funds to buy up "distressed properties", as they are already doing, and increasingly extract their wealth from the rents of the masses. Meanwhile, the middle class will be competing with machines that can do our job faster and cheaper, and spending more on food and energy, leaving little else in the way of discretionary spending. The gap in market power increasingly leads to elite consolidation of the political system....heck, we are basically already there. The gap will grow until....well something will have to happen and it won't be pretty. Will the middle class institute redistributive economic regimes, or be coerced into fighting the middle class of the neighboring country for the scraps? Time will tell.

In all of those blog entries, along with the reader comments, I had a *duh* moment, not unlike when I read about Peak Oil a decade ago, in which I suddenly realized just how close we are to automation and machines rendering not just a few factory workers vocationally obsolete, but a good deal of everybody else as well. Somewhere also in Stuartâs blog, somebody mentioned Martin Fordâs book, The Lights in the Tunnel, (free download of the pdf version at: which is Mr. Fordâs take on just where the accelerating march of technology is taking our world economy and society, and Iâve realized, itâs not going to a good place. Itâs going to a hellish one, and more to the point weâre much closer to it than I had realized. The reality is that automation and technology has killed many jobs already, but is poised to kill far, far, more jobs and occupations very shortly. Automation was supposed to give humanity much free time, and well, yes, so far itâs done just that to not just the upper class, but the lower classes as well - the latter very much against their will. If not for the food stamps and other wealth transfer programs the US already has, weâd be in for a world of hurt, but reading Fordâs work, along with the insightful comments at Stanifordâs blog, it hit me like a ton of bricks that weâre going to be needing and enduring a whole lot *more* govt. wealth transfer programs shortly out of necessity.

The only major question I have is how much Peak Oil and Climate Change short circuits this march towards the (economic) Singularity and mega job loss through automation. That is, where is the balance between Fordâs work and that of Sharon and Aaronâs thesis in A Nation of Farmers, where reduced energy availability forces millions of people back into more basic work - work those workers will find happiness doing?

Over the past several weeks, while trying to think through all Iâve concluded about the current and soon to be future impact of automation and technology on the greatly accelerating wealth concentration going on in this country has me looking at wealth transfer entitlements in a warm way I just didnât think was possible some months ago.

That said, anything people can do at all to increase their self sufficiency and ability to work outside the present formal economy will be a very wise and welcome thing going forward.

Sharon, Iâd be most interested in your take of Fordâs book and thoughts and just how his view of the future meshes with the one most of the rest of us here have developed of the Post Peak world. I mean, I know you have so much free time on your hands :-)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

Sharon, I just posted a largish comment to this blog, but due perhaps to its shear size, along with several embedded URLs, the software is holding it for moderation. Specifically, it comments on the necessity of many more wealth transfer systems such as food stamps in the face of what the explosion of automation and technology is doing to so many people's jobs and vocations.

If you see fit to release it... :)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 26 Jul 2011 #permalink

Greatly reducing America's defence budget would do wonders for its image overseas. America's bully boy tactics make it the most loathed on the planet. One country has been found guilty of International Terrorism by the World Court, that right, its the good old USA. No other country claiming to be developed has so many people living below the poverty line, with a social welfare system 100 years out of date. With a debt so large it can never be paid off, why does America still have a AAA credit rating?

@ MissouriMule,

In the times you recall, you had to get a CO's permission -- and not just a formality -- to get married. And you had to be married to get out of the barracks. And that came from a time when there was no cohabitation, at least not publicly known.

I think there is room to quibble about whether some recipients could survive intact, without food stamps. Not all, and truly. But some will buy the food stamp-approved groceries, then double the amount in beer, movies, and other non-essentials. And I am deeply suspicious of such an entitlement program so closely identified with one political party; it seems at times to be a deliberate vote-buying operation, that incidentally helps feed some people.

I think it is more reasonable to say that the American military has been an immensely successful way for the poor to improve their economic and social status.

Sharing service has also been an effective social engineering cauldron for desegregation and civil rights overall. Both the disadvantage and the nominally advantaged they serve with learn from the association, and carry that breadth of personal experience to the communities and families they come to live in later in life.

Sharon makes the better point that food stamps improve national security by staving off social, and economic, unrest. It has ever been true, that a sound national defense begins with a sound economy.

I just hope everyone that wants to gut (not just trim back) military spending remembers that other nations aren't issuing food stamps. And the traditional remedy outside the US for unrest is to label the neighbors as the enemy and send off an army or three to grab resources and punish "the enemy" they made up.

@ Adrianne,

Unfortunately, the Monroe Doctrine in the past showed the harm done by a "let's take care of ourselves" military posture.

I think there are enormous savings available, if we change how we budget military units, and change how we procure material. JFK's Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara started the current process, where before letting a contract, everyone interested had to survive a paper evaluation. When procuring one fighter, one of the contractors had a flying demo but the other contractor won the contract on paper -- then experienced enormous delays and over-runs trying to get one to fly and in production. We all remember stories of the golden hammers and toilet seats. The real problem is that it literally costs companies thousands of dollars to get a hammer or toilet seat documented, reviewed, and evaluated by the government.

Are there troops overseas or in various states that should be dispersed? Yep. But there are a lot of them that by being available, keep the world situation a bit calmer than it might have been.

I thought you might find the Heritage Foundations recent backgrounder on
I find it telling that they talk about the poor being adequately nourished but only mention food stamps in passing and do not mention WIC at all.

"However, even though the poor, in general, have an ample food supply, some do suffer from temporary food shortages. For example, a poor household with an adequate long-term food supply might need temporarily to cut back meals, eat cheap food, or go without if cash and food stamps run out at the end of the month."

Stephen, that'll be my next stop. Brad, no offense, but the "vote buying" thing is pretty silly. The majority of the extremely poor in the US don't vote at all, and the ones that do are just as likely to vote Republican - the working poor in the south and heartland of the US have long been convinced that they are just one lottery win or business venture short of becoming rich and having to worry about death taxes. This is totally insane, of course, but I don't think there's any worry about vote buying.

There are certainly some abuses of food stamps - there's no point in denying that. Any program large enough to matte will have some abuses - at the same time, the stats are extremely clear - families that receive food stamps are not doing well, and most of them run out of food regularly at the end of the month. Since half of them are kids, even if someone does buy beer with their limited other income, is it worth visiting hunger on small kids to prevent Dad from drinking - something he'll probably do anyway? Historically speaking, if Dad prioritizes beer over well-being, the kids just went hungry. With food stamps, at least they can (mostly) only be used for food, so the kids get some food.


IIRC, malnutrition presented the UK with serious recruitment issues in WWI - some recruiting stations were turning away a third or more of applicants as being too stunted, or in too poor health, for service. While you don't need quite the same level of mobilisation in a modern army, it could start to cause problems, especially since, as an earlier commenter noted, the poorest are disproportionately represented in the ranks.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 27 Jul 2011 #permalink

Sharon, your commenters may have hit upon EXACTLY the phrase we need to keep hammering to shut down the republican rhetoric - food stamps ARE national defense.

@ Stripey cat: I was watching a WWII show on the History Channel not too many days ago (not too crazy about their spin but I love seeing the footage) and one thing that really stood out was how very *skinny* and malnourished many of the US soldiers looked, even when still at basic training. The Depression hit Americans hard, even when they DID have a farm to go back to.

Let's run the real numbers:
Since the mid 60's we have spent $16 Trillion on means tested government income re-distribution programs. We are now $14.2 Trillion in debt and have
44 million people on food stamps,
over 40 million kids getting free school lunches,
9 million more on WIC,
about 8 million in subsidized housing,
5 million on TANF,
8 million on SSI (including 1.2 million kids),
about 49 million on Medicaid and
71 million households not paying taxes because of EITC and the Child Tax Credit.
Does anybody really think more debt or taxes to pay for more income re-distribution programs is really going to help anything? How can a tax system be called "fair" when 47% of households are getting a free ride on the backs of the 53% who are paying income tax and carrying their own weight in society? What part of that is sustainable? What part of that is fair?
All the corporations combined have never received this much of the taxpayers money. The cost of all the wars this country has ever fought doesn't come close to this massive shift of wealth from the people who earn it - to the people who do not earn it.
The more we pay people to be poor, the more poor people we have. The above numbers prove that beyond any argument. And no - I am not wealthy, just sick and tired of paying other people's bills while the poor folks keep crying "woe is me" and their "benefits" just keep growing and getting passed from generation to generation.

taxed: "The more we pay people to be poor, the more poor people we have." Is that what happened three years ago - we started paying poor people more to be poor? I could have sworn that folks who had gotten rich by gambling with other people's money screwed up, and other folks who had worked for years found themselves without house and home. But the rich got compensated for their recklessness, so I guess it's OK. Except for all those taxes they pay.

The Koch brothers and their ilk are rich beyond the dreams of Midas, and they are determined to get all the richer in the few years they have left. We are all subsidizing them by our lives, and the quality of life, by our lungs, and our children's health.

I am also taxed, but most of it goes to those far richer than I. And most of the poor I've known work their fingers to the bone. Most of the debt comes from TARP, Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and two wars, one poorly fought, and the other based on lies.


You may not frequent Sharon's blog much and hence, may not have noticed me, but I am generally on the fairly conservative end of fiscal discussions here.

I too was pretty right of center when it came to govt. spending - up until TARP, however. TARP was the most blatant bail out of wealthy, reckless folks who made bad business decisions that this federal government has done in its 2 centuries of existence. I mean, come on, TARP and the other bailouts (GM) were, what? something like twice the size of the ordinary federal annual budget? Then there were the 2 stupid wars of the past 10 years - I'm all for a true national defense, but Kermit's comments hit the nail on the head here.

I have come to realize that we are pretty much stuck with lots of wealth transfer programs coming out of this government because, with the march of technology obsoleting people's jobs left and right, the only thing left to do is pay people a meager sum to kick back in their subsidized abode, eating their subsidized food - only now we're talking about cutting all that support as well. So there we have it, automation and offshoring, things that have been reducing jobs for some time, are moving ever faster. Now, not just the factory workers are losing jobs, but IT managers as well. I've even seen stories where lawyers are being replaced by computers - computers to do legal research and write up cases - the real lawyers merely review the output before presenting it in court. Bingo: one lawyer and a computer now do the work of 3 or 4 lawyers before. Meanwhile, this march of automation is going hand in hand with the rising price of food and energy, squeezing people even harder. No amount of re-education and job training is going to keep up with this either. The vocational obsoleting is just proceeding too quickly.

I don't like all the entitlements either. I'd rather see people standing on their own, but what's going on here is much more complex than simply a liberal govt. run amok, handing out goodies. These entitlements are becoming a vital part of our social maintenance.

Technology through automation, instant global communication, and transportation, is consolidating and eliminating jobs like never before. I used to think constrained world energy supplies would put a brake on this, but now, I'm not so sure. What is happening is that all this technology is allowing a wealth concentration into the hands of a very few on a scale that civilization has never before seen. I repeat: it isn't just the manual laborer jobs going away anymore. Entitlement payments are becoming a way (a poor way, but a way nevertheless) to redeploy a bit of the wealth back to common people that the impending economic singularity it trying to concentrate in some kind of ultra tight circle of a very few ultra rich, elite.

I've recently seen it written that these automation and technological trends could lead to 30 to 60 percent of today's jobs being eliminated with no replacement jobs created. You think entitlement spending is large now? Just wait.

I know we want to reward hard work and intelligence, but we're headed into uncharted waters regarding wealth concentration. If you think this is an okay and good thing, I'd think again if I were you.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 27 Jul 2011 #permalink

Hungry people start revolutions.

Marie Antoinette found that out the hard way, as did several other rulers.
The Republicans may be next.

Sharon: long-time reader here from your early, early days...

So, I'm in a MPA program right now (Public Administration) and I'm writing a white paper suggesting the reforming of SNAP such that families can't use Food Stamps to buy sugar-sweetened-beverages (soda, etc.) as a way to combat child-hood obesity and force the money to be spent on more healthy choices. I'm aware of the Massachussettes program that gives an incentive to buy healthy foods. And also of the snowballs-chance-in-hell of my suggested change being adopted over the sugar-lobbies dead body...and a few libertarians.

Still, any thoughts on that? From the research I've read, the general consensus is that even the high-poverty segment is getting enough calories by standard measure, but the lack of quality food is driving the strange starved-but-obese paradigm. But then, if I were really starving, I'd take whatever I could find. But if all you have access to is processed crap sugar foods, isn't that like drinking sea-water on a life-raft? Oi.

I'm just having a hard time getting my head around this. And that's without even getting into the "can we even afford this?" question. Double-oi.

Dan, I'm of two minds on this - in principle I think that denying people the right to buy crap food with food stamps isn't inherently a bad idea. At the same time, I think it will be ineffective - particularly since something like 1/4 of food stamp recipients are spending them illegally - often not for bad reasons. Sure, some of them trade their food stamps for cigarettes and liquor, but most of the illegal usage is spent trading at convenience stores for things they need but can't use food stamps for - toilet paper, tampons, pencils for their kids to use at school, soap, etc... We've had pretty poor luck controlling how food stamps are really used. But yes, no soda seems like a pretty reasonable regulation.


Once upon an old and slippery slope we glide....

Cooking a frog at a slow boil drastically reduces the odds that it will succeed by employing fight or flight strategies, but when the frog can see what's happening to other frogs and understand it's implications it might stand a slightly better chance of survival.

Interestingly, giving frogs a vote on who does the cooking, which recipe to follow and what water temperature should be employed seems rather disturbing to me, but apparently it's effective in diverting the frog's attention.

Meanwhile, back in the budget office folks are still trying to decide where the lines between rich and poor are drawn.

By sorites paradox (not verified) on 31 Jul 2011 #permalink