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No food for the poor: Malthus and Republican ideologues

Motivating the poor through hunger has a long and sordid history.

Last updated: 18 Nov 2013 12:43
William G Moseley

Prof William G. Moseley is a human-environment and development geographer at Macalester College in Saint Paul.
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"Republication ideology on the attitudes and behaviours of the poor dates back several centuries in the Anglo-American policy world," writes Moseley [Getty Images]

On November 1, US Republicans managed to roll back expanded food and nutrition benefits for the poorest Americans.  While these cuts are devastating, even more alarming are future draconian plans driven by 18th century thinking about the poor and how they are different.

In the midst of the US' greatest economic recession since the 1930s, President Barack Obama expanded benefits to the poor under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. While the Great Recession has officially ended, the recovery has been dreadfully slow with wealthy Americans disproportionately reaping the benefits of growth. 

With challenging times persisting for most Americans, about 48 million people (or nearly 15 percent of the population) get food stamps today, up from 26 million, or about 9 percent of the population, in 2007. This is not unexpected as the food stamp program is designed to expand and contract with the economy. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average stay on the program is nine months, and half of the recipients are children. 

The $5bn rollback of benefits on November 1, impacted all 47 million SNAP beneficiaries, with an average family of four receiving $36 less per month. Now Republicans want to cut the program by a further 5 percent (trimming almost 4 million people from the program in 2014), with an even more ambitious $40bn in cuts over the next decade.

Poor laws

Driving these reductions is a Republication ideology on the attitudes and behaviours of the poor that dates back several centuries in the Anglo-American policy world. At the dawn of the 19th century, the British parson and professor, Thomas Malthus, penned his influential Essay on the Principle of Population. While this work is often read as a treatise on population dynamics, it also has much to say on access to food and the behaviours of the poor.

The deep irony is that both Reagan and Ryan are the descendants of Irish immigrants who likely fled their homeland because of brutal Malthusian-inspired policies which used hunger as a tool for change.

Malthus' essay must be seen in the policy context of the time, an intensely difficult transition period between an agrarian and an industrial economy. In the late 18th century there was an active debate over the poor laws, a system which obligated individual parishes to provide subsistence to the needy. Malthus vehemently opposed the poor laws, claiming that these "diminish both the power and the will to save among the common people, and thus to weaken one of the strongest incentives to sobriety and industry…" Malthus went even further, framing aid to the poor as a huge waste of resources "that would otherwise belong to more industrious and more wealthy members".

This old and self-serving ideology subsequently led British overlords to deny adequate food assistance to victims of the Great Irish Famine, people whose hunger could be directly linked to British colonial land confiscations and plantation schemes on the island. Regrettably, this horrendous experiment of using hunger to drive social reform and economic reorganisation would also be deployed in other parts of the British Empire during the latter half of the 19th century in colonies such as India and Nigeria.

Malthusian Republicans

From Reagan to contemporary Republicans, conservative US political ideologues have also embraced this old Malthusian thinking on using hunger to drive social and economic reform. Ronald Reagan is famous for demonising "Welfare Queens", poor single mothers who supposedly opted not to work and lived "lavishly" off public assistance. This racist and gendered stereotype would eventually lead to the Clinton era welfare reforms of the 1990s under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.

More recently, Republican Congreesman Paul Ryan, chairman of the US House Budget Committee and former vice presidential candidate, has argued that the safety net is becoming "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency". To wit, his budget proposals entail significant cuts to the SNAP program.

The deep irony is that both Reagan and Ryan are the descendants of Irish immigrants who likely fled their homeland because of brutal Malthusian-inspired policies which used hunger as a tool for change. 

Let us be clear on cause and effect. Struggling Americans fall back on SNAP because of low wages, under- and unemployment, and not the other way around. These benefits are critical for helping people get back on their feet.  Especially for children, who make up 50 percent of beneficiaries, supplemental nutrition is critical for continued development and education. As such, SNAP is not just a safety net onto which any of us might have to fall back on in a turbulent economy, it is a program that helps protect the nation's most vulnerable children.

With the SNAP program currently being debated in Congress as part of the reauthorisation process for the 2012 farm bill, Republicans have strategically chosen to downplay their belief that some people (read non-Republicans and racial minorities) must be compelled to work by hunger. Rather, they have opted to frame this as necessary budget trimming.  Never mind the fact that the farm bill also includes massive subsidies for ecologically unstable agricultural practices and that these benefits disproportionately accrue to the wealthiest farmers.

Subjecting people to hunger during periods of under- and unemployment is based on a centuries' old argument that the poor and people of colour are somehow different and must be compelled to work. The fact that these beliefs continue to be articulated in the US' political sphere is a disgrace. It is the agricultural side of the farm bill that must be reformed, and not the vital safety net known as SNAP.

William G. Moseley is Professor and Chair of Geography at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA.  His latest book is An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.

Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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