Workers Vanguard No. 1036
13 December 2013
Democrats, Republicans Take Ax to Food Stamps
Capitalists Starve Workers, Poor
With a growing number of billionaires in its ranks and the stock market booming, the ruling class in the U.S. is giddy with greed. In its quest to stockpile wealth, this tiny capitalist elite keeps bleeding working people dry. As a result, the mass of the population continues to reel from the effects of the Great Recession triggered by rampant financial speculation in the housing market, even as the banks and other big businesses declare a renaissance. The Bloomberg news service, founded by the world’s richest (now departing) mayor, recently trumpeted: “Wages Stagnate as U.S. Manufacturers Reap Record Profits” (21 November). Not satisfied with slashing pay to the bone, the insatiable capitalist rulers are also further gutting those meager social benefits that help keep workers and the poor afloat. And greater hunger and misery are on the horizon, as the $5 billion cut in food stamps last month attests.
Some 47.5 million food stamp recipients, nearly half of them children, were impacted by this step, which was approved by Democrats and Republicans alike. This benefit loss was triggered by the lapse of a temporary increase in funding for food stamps—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—included in the 2009 economic stimulus act. The toll of the cut was immediate, as families were forced to scrimp even more on meals and to seek out emergency food pantries.
For all the talk of government dysfunction and gridlock, both parties of capital have showed proficiency in screwing the poor. And more cuts are on the way—the only real question is how much. In alternate farm bills that set the funding for food stamps, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted for $4 billion in cuts, while the Republican-controlled House voted for $40 billion. This is despite the fact that the number of food stamp recipients has swelled by 80 percent over the last six years of economic downturn.
Although the unemployment rate fell last month to its lowest level since 2008, the prospects of finding a job at anything resembling decent pay remain very dim. So much so that droves of people have simply given up on looking for work, the main factor accounting for that rate drop. In the time since the financial crisis claimed 8.7 million jobs, only 7.4 million have been created, and these overwhelmingly pay low wages. Half of all employees in America now earn less than $26,000 a year, barely above the official poverty level for a family of four. Among the factors swelling the legions of the working poor—from Wal-Mart “associates” to college adjunct professors—is President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The law has encouraged employers to cut hours to avoid providing health care while jacking up insurance costs for much of the workforce.
Working households today constitute 40 percent of food stamp recipients, with one quarter of the overall U.S. workforce depending on some form of public assistance. In a sign of the times, Wal-Mart had the audacity to set up a food bank for its own miserably paid employees before Thanksgiving, and McDonald’s counseled its staff on eating smaller mouthfuls so it would feel like they had more food. Long gone are the days when soup kitchens and food pantries were just for the “down-and-outs” and families in acute crisis. Such charities are keeping countless people alive who would starve on what the employers and government dole out, as food prices rise faster than all other expenses except transportation costs and medical bills. In New York City, food charities were already rationing portion sizes and turning people away before Superstorm Sandy struck last year and threw many more on their mercy.
With affordable housing a rarity in the city, more and more New Yorkers, many of them women with young children, are punching out of work only to sign in to homeless shelters. Pricing working people out of city residences extends to San Francisco, where one worker explained: “Now it’s hard to be a middle-class person with what used to seem like a really good salary in this city” (New York Times, 26 November). When the housing market crashed, sparking the recession, mortgage foreclosures swept the nation, causing ten million largely working-class families to lose their homes. Today, an additional 2.3 million are at risk. One measure of the spread of homelessness over the last five years is the 72 percent nationwide increase in the public school enrollment of children without a residence. Fully one in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty.
Two Democratic Party city councilmen in Los Angeles are plumbing the depths of official abuse by proposing a ban on publicly feeding the homeless, a measure already enacted or under consideration in over 30 cities, including Philadelphia, Seattle and Orlando. Earlier this year, L.A. had sought legal sanction for its police force to seize and destroy the scant personal belongings of those on skid row. In many black-majority cities like Baltimore and Detroit, where poverty and homelessness abound, authorities are demolishing neighborhoods or letting them burn rather than invest in maintaining and restoring housing stock.
The devastation of bankrupt Detroit is a testament to the brutal workings of capitalism, as the auto giants first recruited labor, including many black workers, to toil on the assembly line only to then toss them on the scrap heap when the plants were no longer as profitable. Widely hailed for having “saved” the Big Three by showering tens of billions on the auto bosses (not to mention trillions on the banks), the Wall Street Democrat Obama again has turned his back on the desperate black masses amid the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. Following the recent court ruling that gave the green light to wiping out city workers’ pensions, other government bodies are lining up to do the same. Two days after the ruling, Illinois Democratic governor Pat Quinn signed a bill that stripped away retirement benefits from hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and other workers. While the ax-wielders scream about “underfunded” and “mismanaged” pension benefits, Wall Street has for years been looting retirement funds. The message from the bosses is clear enough: work hard, starve and die.
The inability of the richest imperialist power on the planet to provide the necessities of life to the producers of its incredible wealth is a searing indictment of the system of production for profit. This country has the resources to provide well-paying jobs, healthy diets and quality medical care, housing and education for everyone who lives here. But to provide these necessities requires that the rule of the rapacious capitalist class be overthrown by a proletarian socialist revolution.
“Let Them Eat Cake”
The modern food stamp program has its roots in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Enacted following U.S. capitalism’s most serious crash in 1929, the New Deal served to stave off the growing radicalization and militant labor struggles of the 1930s. The precursor to SNAP was introduced in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the first farm bill. Although farming has undergone a great transformation in the U.S. from the time of the Great Depression with the virtual disappearance of family farms, the main purpose of the farm bill has remained unchanged: maintaining high prices for agricultural products.
Under the AAA, the government paid farmers to not grow food on a percentage of their land and purchased “excess” crops. The government to this day heavily subsidizes grains, oilseeds, cotton, sugar and dairy products. The money for these subsidies has always far outstripped the sums dedicated to providing food for the poor.
In the AAA’s first year, ten million acres of cotton were destroyed, six million pigs were killed and vast amounts of milk were poured down the sewers in an attempt to stabilize the market. That the bourgeoisie would pursue these measures at the height of a worldwide depression speaks volumes to the irrationality of capitalist production. At a time when many American children were suffering from diseases caused by malnutrition, food stamps and soon thereafter the school lunch program represented a more politically expedient means of disposing of “excess” supply.
The impact of the AAA was especially pernicious in the rural South, where sharecropping and tenancy formed the labor backbone of agriculture. In lieu of wages, the sharecropper worked for a portion of the cash crop as well as a food allowance and other necessities. The tenant farmer paid a share of the crop as rent on the land worked. Government subsidies induced white landlords not to farm, which left black tenants and sharecroppers to starve. Countless poor black and white families were driven off the land and into extreme misery as a result of the New Deal of the Democrats.
In later decades, farm bills would help catapult U.S. agribusiness into becoming the dominant global food supplier. Massive government assistance to farm interests and its enormous grain reserves were deployed to manipulate the world grain market and put the competition out of business. Food production in neocolonial countries was upended, as a wide swath of the world became almost wholly dependent on U.S. agricultural imports. The persistence of starvation as a condition of a large portion of humanity makes clear that under capitalism food is distributed not according to need but according to the ability to pay.
Meanwhile, farm subsidies have padded the accounts of a number of billionaires, among them Charles Schwab and David Rockefeller Sr. Ken Cook, head of the watchdog Environmental Working Group, noted in A Place at the Table (2013): “Taxpayers shelled out more than a quarter of a trillion dollars for various federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2010. But to characterize this staggering sum as a big government bailout or welfare would be manifestly unfair—to bailouts and welfare.” He adds: “To be clear, the US Department of Agriculture has cracked down on one nagging problem with absentee owners in recent years: the USDA assures Congress that almost none of the subsidies paid to dead farmers are improper.”
In contrast, fruits and vegetables for the living are often hard to come by. Not a single supermarket dots the eight-square-mile landscape of the black neighborhood of West Oakland, California, home to over 30,000 people. Such considerations do not register for moralizing bourgeois spokesmen who blame malnutrition and obesity among the poor on “lifestyle choices.” To much fanfare, in 2010 the Obama administration pushed through the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” supposedly to improve the quality of food in school lunches. Not only was this measure stripped of any meaningful funding; the money spent on it was taken directly out of SNAP.
The original food stamp program and its revival in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “Great Society” offerings were sops in response to social upheaval. Today, with the dearth of class struggle, the capitalists are content to just cast aside those who cannot be put to work. The current House farm bill includes a 20-hour weekly work requirement for receipt of food stamps. Republican majority leader Eric Cantor drew a straight line between this proposal and the welfare “reform” of the 1990s—the attacks under Democratic president Clinton that “ended welfare as we know it” and introduced workfare. That scheme forced people to take jobs, often substituting for unionized workers, to get their welfare checks. What is needed is a fight to organize workfare recipients into the unions as part of broader struggle in the interests of the working and poor masses.
A major force among today’s Republicans is the neo-Confederates of the Tea Party. These racist yahoos are part of a long tradition of bourgeois demagogues railing to ax social programs portrayed as a redistribution of income from hard-working folks to “undeserving” blacks and immigrants. More than a few Tea Party supporters have expressed a willingness to forego such benefits themselves to spite the black masses. The black population, which constitutes an oppressed race-color caste overwhelmingly segregated at the bottom of this society, would be hard hit by the shredding of what remains of the social safety net.
Expropriate the Expropriators!
The prolonged wage squeeze has sparked some fightback from working people. On Black Friday, protesters gathered at 1,500 Wal-Mart stores to demand at least $25,000 annually for full-time employees. Some 110 people were arrested nationwide. The week after the OUR Wal-Mart protests, workers at fast-food outlets across the country held brief walkouts to rally for higher wages. Most minimum-wage workers are employed in retail or food service. As one measure of how paltry wages have become, a Congressional report in May estimated that a single 300-employee Wal-Mart Supercenter costs anywhere from $904,542 to nearly $1.75 million per year in supplemental government assistance for the workforce.
A major backer of the “Fight for 15” campaign, which seeks a doubling of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Although Fight for 15 has attracted combative workers, for the SEIU tops it is a public relations ploy to leverage the Democratic Party into supporting a slight minimum wage increase. For decades, the labor movement has been stifled by a leadership that ties workers to the capitalist system, largely through preaching reliance on the Democratic Party. This strategy has provided less cover than an umbrella with holes for the anti-union onslaught on the working class.
Take the 2009 bailout of the auto industry orchestrated by Obama. It was all about making the members of the once mighty United Auto Workers (UAW) “work for less”—or not at all—to restore the profitability of the companies. With the complicity of the class-collaborationist UAW bureaucrats, it did just that. Today the starting wage at a General Motors plant is $16 an hour, far less than it had been, helping fuel wage-gouging throughout the economy.
Any increase in the minimum wage is long overdue. Obama and his Labor Secretary, Thomas Perez, have made noises in favor of $10 an hour, safe in the knowledge that the measure will never get through Congress. Some states and local jurisdictions have recently voted to increase the minimum wage in order to get more money circulating in area economies. But these increases and the others being proposed are a pittance compared to the actual needs of working people.
Any significant gains will be won not by making alliances with the Democrats but by class-struggle mobilizations of the multiracial working class, particularly at relative union strongholds in industry and along the cargo chain supplying the retailers and fast-food businesses. This road also is the one that can organize these workers into the unions as part of revitalizing a long-weakened labor movement.
America’s capitalist rulers presume that they can just starve the poor, kill off retirees and further impoverish working people and the oppressed without repercussions. This calculation, which owes much to the role of the trade-union bureaucracy in suppressing labor struggle, is an expression of ruling-class arrogance. The grinding down of the working masses creates conditions that can and will boil over into open battle with the class enemy. It is vital that workers break the chains forged by the trade-union misleaders that shackle labor to its exploiters.
To actually resolve hunger, homelessness and unemployment and overcome the crushing oppression of the black population will take far more than a fight for better wages. In Capital (Volume I), Karl Marx explained that the immiseration of the laboring masses, as well as the ever-increasing concentration of production, are inherent to the capitalist system:
“Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
To realize the expropriation of the expropriators requires the forging of a revolutionary party to lead the proletariat in the fight for working-class rule.