How Food Stamp Resentment Feeds Crabby Conservatism
WASHINGTON — Janina Riley noticed a woman muttering behind her in the checkout line as she paid for food at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh last April.
“I can’t believe she’s buying that big-ass cake with food stamps,” the woman said, according to Riley.
Riley, 19, had just used a government-issued debit card to pay for most of her groceries, which included a cake for her son that said “Happy First Birthday Xavier” in a theme from the movie “Cars.” She glared at the women for a second, then decided to confront her.
“I was just like, ‘Shut the fuck up,’” Riley said. “You don’t know what I’m doing with these food stamps.”
But many Americans do not want to let people on food stamps eat cake. This sentiment is particularly prevalent among conservatives in Congress. Cash register resentment of the sort directed at Riley feeds Republican animus toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
It’s a petty path toward a huge target: As SNAP enrollment has surged to nearly 50 million in the wake of the Great Recession, the program’s annual cost has more than doubled to $80 billion. Republicans want to shrink those numbers, but they missed their best chance in June, when a trillion-dollar farm bill failed in the House of Representatives, after the GOP sought deeper cuts than Democrats would accept.
Following the vote, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) got to work telling a familiar story, one he said he’d heard many times from broken-hearted and angry constituents. Its protagonist is a hardworking Texan waiting in line at the grocery store. Someone’s buying Alaskan king crab legs in front of him, and he’s looking at them longingly, dreaming of the day he can afford such a luxury. Then the person buying them whips out his EBT — an Electronic Benefits Transfer card for food stamps.
“He looks at the king crab legs and looks at his ground meat and realizes,” Gohmert said, “because he does pay income tax … he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can’t pay for them for himself.”
And that’s how cash register resentment becomes crabby conservatism — the belief that your own struggles are tangled up in another person’s safety net.