It’s hard for Minnesotans not to be smug about the income, poverty and employment data that gushed from the U.S. Census Bureau and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) this week. Happier days are here again — here.
In August, the number of jobs in the state finally topped their prerecession level. The state’s median household income was $58,900 last year, compared with $51,400 for the nation as a whole. The pace of the state’s economic growth ranked fifth in the nation in the latest federal accounting.
Minnesota was one of only two states — Texas the other — that registered a statistically significant drop in poverty between 2011 and 2012. While the share of Americans living on incomes below the federal poverty line climbed to 15 percent, the share of Minnesotans in those straits fell to 11.4 percent, down from 11.9 percent in 2011. That’s movement in a direction that Minnesotans can cheer.
The stats from the rest of the nation might be met in these parts with a “coulda-been-worse” shrug. No change is generally no news. That’s largely what the latest census report showed about American incomes and poverty levels between 2011 and 2012.
But no change in the fourth year after the economic collapse of 2008 is nothing to be sanguine about. Millions of Americans continue to struggle with the joblessness and income cuts the recession inflicted. Nearly one in six subsists on an income below the federal poverty line, and half of them endure “deep poverty,” earning less than half of the poverty-line amount.
This week’s uninspiring numbers certainly do not justify a rollback in help for the long-term unemployed. The $40 billion, 10-year cut in food stamps for childless adults approved Thursday by the GOP-controlled U.S. House seems not only unwarranted but cruel.
It’s worth noting the reason that national median incomes slid a statistically insignificant 0.2 percent lower in 2012. Americans worked more hours in 2012 than in 2011, but their average wages dropped slightly. That’s the latest evidence that the jobs that are appearing after the recession in much of the country don’t pay enough for households to thrive. Some don’t pay enough for them to eat.
It’s hard to understand how, in the face of that evidence, House Republicans — including Minnesota Reps. Michele Bachmann, Erik Paulsen and John Kline — decided that now is the time to trim the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill they backed would end food aid for 4 million Americans next year, including 41,000 low-income Minnesotans.
Arguments that food stamps deter unemployed people from seeking employment aren’t plausible — not when the assistance for childless adults is $4 per day and can be used only to buy food. And not when the nation’s unemployment rate remains a depressingly high 7.3 percent, with three job searchers for every job opening.
What’s more, many food stamp recipients are employed. In Minnesota, a 2010 study found that the head of household was employed in 60 percent of the families with children receiving food stamps. Thirty percent of all Minnesota SNAP recipients work, but at jobs that don’t pay enough to stave off hunger between paychecks. (Seniors and disabled people comprise the lion’s share of recipients who do not work.)
Food stamps are good for the economy, especially the agricultural sector. That’s why they were funded via farm legislation in Congress for decades and won bipartisan support from farm-state lawmakers — until this year, when Republican insistence that the growing program needed to be cut resulted in the severing of SNAP from the farm bill.
In light of the latest income and poverty statistics, SNAP’s recent growth looks less like excessive government spending and more like the compassionate response of a wealthy nation to persistent poverty and joblessness in its midst.
Lawmakers are right to try to bring down the number of Americans who depend on food stamps. But simply denying them help isn’t in keeping with American values. Instead, state and federal lawmakers should raise the minimum wage, to make work pay more. They should stay the course on Obamacare, to bring the benefits of health insurance to the working poor. They should shore up antipoverty measures such as the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and the state Working Family Tax Credit. Meanwhile, local governments do well to make locally grown produce more affordably available through community gardens and programs like Homegrown Minneapolis.
The House’s food stamp cuts are destined for a deservedly frosty reception in the Democratic Senate and White House. But as the new census data show, the nation needs a comprehensive strategy to combat high unemployment and growing poverty. A fight over how much to cut food stamps doesn’t come close to filling that bill.