Local Politics: Maybe the cruelty really is the point

The budget currently making its way through the Republican-led Ohio General Assembly, which includes damaging punitive measures taken against the poor, is also wildly hypocritical

Craig Calcaterra
Bob Cupp, R-Lima, talks with the press after being elected Speaker of the House at the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, July 30, 2020 [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

Back in 2008, Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said, "Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value." At present, the Ohio General Assembly is in the process of finalizing the state's biennial budget, which, in addition to funding the many functions of government, clearly communicates Republican values. Primarily the party’s cruelty and hypocrisy.

On page 2,019 of the 3,300-page budget bill, Senate Republicans have inserted a series of measures that serve to cut off benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps or SNAP benefits) for people who have the temerity to actually save a little money, pick up an extra shift or to drive anything other than an absolute junker of a car.

The Senate has done this via a proposed provision requiring the state to cut off SNAP assistance to households that save up $2,250 or more, while also imposing a requirement known as "change reporting," which requires recipients to report every fluctuation in income worth $500 or more within 30 days. The proposal also seeks to include vehicles valued at more than $4,650 as assets for purposes of probing savings, meaning that if your car is worth $6,900, you're deemed to have more than the $2,250 in savings that serves as a benefit cut off. This is to say that if you drive anything as grand as a 10-year-old Hyundai Sonata, you're too rich for food assistance according to Ohio Republicans.

These sorts of asset tests — SNAP assistance is typically based on income — create perverse incentives and penalize responsible behavior. But that's OK to Republicans, because being responsible has nothing to do with this. This is all about stoking a fire that, for decades, has served Republicans well politically: demonizing the poor.

Food stamp resentment, as Arthur Delaney coined it in a Huffington Post column several years ago, is an outgrowth of Ronald Reagan's defamatory myth of the "welfare queen," in which he and other politicians ginned up antigovernment sentiment and resentment of the poor in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea was that the poor — especially poor Blacks — were too lazy to work and relied too greatly on public benefits to get by, paid for by you and me and other allegedly upstanding, tax paying citizens.

As it relates to food assistance, the local narrative can be traced back to a 1993 Columbus Dispatch Letter to the Editor in which the writer decried a SNAP recipient who bought "two bottles of wine, steak and a large bag of king crab legs" with food stamps. Such claims — rarely if ever verified and since the advent of EBT cards basically impossible to actually pull off — have become a common urban legend among conservatives, offered as justification for punitive measures taken against the poor.

These tales, and the policy changes they help justify, are a political gambit. They are not born of necessity and are not related to policy objectives, at least beyond that of slashing taxes for the wealthy and the middle class and diverting money from those in need to those whom Republicans favor.

They're also an exercise in hypocrisy.

Last week, ProPublica released a story detailing the tax "burden" of the 25 wealthiest Americans, showing that, given how much of their wealth is related to asset appreciation, stocks, investments, real estate and the like, all of which are taxed at much lower rates (if, indeed, it is taxed at all), they rarely if ever pay income taxes.

In the case of Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the history of humanity, not only did he pay no income taxes, but he claimed a child tax credit. You know, to help him along with the expenses of raising kids.

Nowhere in our modern politics exists the drive to probe the bank accounts and property holdings of these people to determine if they are paying their fair share. The assets of the wealthy, unlike those of SNAP recipients, are totally off limits for scrutiny. There is no apparent concern about the government coffers by virtue of the elaborate and often illegal tax avoidance schemes of the wealthy like there is about someone getting food assistance while driving a car with less than 150,000 miles on it. 

No, it is only the poor whose assets Ohio Republicans are hellbent on scrutinizing. Probably because, while there are no votes to be found in a Republican primary from closing tax loopholes for the rich, there is, and always has been, considerable political currency among conservatives in casting the poor as the enemy. An enemy they seek to conquer via the insertion of a few lines of text on page 2,019 of a 3,300-page, value-defining budget bill.