Columns » Ernest Dumas

Cotton and ilk: Let lazy kids starve

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The Sermon on the Mount, or at least the part about the meek inheriting the earth, is so utterly out of fashion.

If that judgment is too sweeping, let's narrow it to just the Republican Party or, if you insist, to the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas and a few other bailiwicks around the country.

The 2013 farm bill furnishes the parable for this little homily. Because the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives fell out among themselves over how severely the nation's poor people ought to be punished for their laziness, America's farm bill, a year late already, crashed last week. The bill, which would set the nation's food and nutrition policies for the next five years, failed 195-234, and a compromise with the Senate already looked hopeless.

Arkansas and its congressional delegation are a microcosm of the problem. All four congressmen are Republicans and critical in varying degrees of the big nutrition program, formerly called food stamps, that helps millions of people, about 551,000 of them in Arkansas, buy groceries.

Three of them — Tim Griffin, Steve Womack and Rick Crawford — voted for the farm bill. They would have liked to cut much more than $21 billion from food aid to the poor over 10 years, but that is the sum that Republican leaders thought could be passed while preserving government subsidies and insurance for farmers. It turned out that the party's extreme right wing, including Arkansas's Tom Cotton of the Fourth District, wanted the poor to be punished much more than $21 billion, and they voted against the bill and defeated it. Most Democrats opposed the bill because it slashed food aid so drastically, but they were hardly a factor.

Because it has such a high percentage of people who are poor, disabled and unhealthy, Arkansas depends on food aid more than almost any state. And about a third of the 511,000 Arkansans who receive help with groceries live in Cotton's district. It's a good bet that most of the adults — or those who bothered to vote — cast their votes for Cotton without a clue that he stood for anything more than guns, war against Muslims and hostility to the president of the United States.

The battle over the farm bill was a continuation of the big issue in the presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney characterized 47 percent of Americans as slackers and moochers because they earned too little money to owe federal income taxes.  

In the farm-bill debate, the food-aid recipients were the slackers and moochers who didn't deserve the government's bounty. Real deserving Americans benefited from the rest of the farm bill, which would have gone mostly to farmers and 15 companies that insure their crops against market and natural failures.

The case against the poor was that the government's food aid encouraged them not to get jobs. The government's food assistance has soared since the financial and job-market crash in 2008. Millions remain unemployed or holders of part-time and less remunerative jobs than they had before the crash.

But the argument is all wrong. Two-thirds of food aid goes to children, the elderly or disabled. The overwhelming majority of recipients who are able to work hold jobs, though they may be part-time and minimum-wage jobs. The percentage of recipients who work has been increasing for a dozen years.

The poster child for my Beatitudes theme was Congressman Stephen Fincher across the river in Tennessee, who recited Thessalonians to show why most poor people shouldn't get food aid: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." (Paul actually was chastising the nuts who were refusing to work while awaiting Christ's imminent return and Judgment Day.)

But, unhappy as he was, Fincher, unlike Cotton, at least voted for the bill that carried less-than-draconian cuts for the poor so that the rest of the bill — the producer subsidies and federal crop insurance — would be funded.

Why? Congressman Fincher's farming enterprises took in $3.48 million from the taxpayers between 1999 and 2012. Last year, the government gave him only $70,574, which was still $193 a day.

The average poor Tennessee moocher gets $132.20 of grocery vouchers for a full month.

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