Of course budget chief Mick Mulvaney and the other policy sadists in the Trump administration don’t expect their “America’s Harvest Box” idea to fly.
The notion that the government would go to this patronizing extreme, further limiting what people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eat, replacing the EBT cards recipients use at grocery stores with a box of food each month that comports with the government’s idea of good nutrition (canned meats, shelf stable milk, peanut butter, and so on) is going nowhere.
But the fate of this throwback to the 1930s isn’t really the point here. For Trump, the proposal sets a useful tone, furthering the narrative that those on public assistance are morally dubious, lazy, and not to be trusted, and setting the stage for deep cuts to SNAP and other elements of the safety net.
Never mind that more than half of SNAP recipients are children and senior citizens; that 12 percent are disabled; that 40 percent are white; that about 44 percent of food assistance goes to households where someone is already working, and that the program already contains a work requirement; that the average household benefit is about $278 a month. The nasty stereotype of the SNAP recipient — unemployed by choice, abusing benefits to buy soda and candy and steak and lobster — persists, thanks to Trump, Mulvaney, and others who see poverty as a moral failing.
Their attempt to dress up the food box proposal as a cost-saving measure is transparently bogus, says Julie Guthman, a UC Santa Cruz professor and expert on food and agriculture who is currently a fellow at Radcliffe.
“It would be so inefficient,” she said. “There would be no cost savings whatsoever. To me it just reads as punitive and insulting.”
The ugliness behind this proposal reminds me yet again how lucky I am to have grown up in a struggling family, but in a kinder culture. My immigrant mother has only a fifth-grade education. Married at 17, she fled an abusive marriage with her six kids, ages 1 to 16, and raised us alone, supporting us with money she earned working bars in VFW halls. If we had grown up here instead of in Australia, we would have been truly poor, in desperate need of public housing, MassHealth, food stamps, and more.
But in Australia, my mother’s unskilled jobs paid living wages that, along with a small government allowance paid to families almost across the board, supported us. She didn’t have to worry that medical costs or educating her kids would break her: Both were basically free. And Lord, we ate well. My mother was a genius in the kitchen, making Lebanese food light on meat and heavy on cheap grains, potatoes, and labor, all painstakingly crafted over the hours she could squeeze in before and after her shifts.
I suppose, to the untrained eye, like Mulvaney’s, my family might look more like the deserving poor than the SNAP recipients he and other Trumpkins so clearly despise — minus the immigrant part, of course.
But if he wants more American families to manage like ours once did, there are a few things he can try. He can fix it so that those working backbreaking blue-collar jobs are paid wages that will support their families. He can push for affordable health care and education. He can end subsidies for farmers who grow the corn and sugar that make junk food so cheap and easy for everyone. (Only the poor are stigmatized for eating the dreck marketed relentlessly to all; not Trump, whose diet is appalling.)
And lastly, he can turn back time, to when a dollar bought more and parents had time for cooking and Republicans would be embarrassed to balloon deficits by giving tax cuts to the rich even as they trashed the poor.
Or he could lay off SNAP recipients.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.