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Yvonne Abraham

There are Real Americans, and then there are the rest of us

“Government dependency has never been the American dream,” says Sonny Perdue (above), the agriculture secretary.
“Government dependency has never been the American dream,” says Sonny Perdue (above), the agriculture secretary. JIM WATSON/FILE

This is a tale of two welfare programs.

They’re both run by the USDA, but that’s all they have in common — or so the federal government would have you believe. One benefits people at the heart of Real America, the country-diner folks on whose opinions we all hang these days. The other helps people elsewhere, who struggle to feed themselves.

The first is sacrosanct, thanks to a president whose reelection depends on keeping Real America happy. The second is getting a gutting, because why should he or we care what poor people think, or how much they suffer?

Word came down last week of new Trump administration rules that will throw millions of Americans off food stamps, or SNAP. The first to be booted will be childless, so-called able-bodied adults, who will have to work or participate in a work program for 20 hours every week, or lose their meager food assistance.

The move is expected to cut $5.5 billion from the program over five years and imperil assistance for 700,000 Americans. About 35,000 of them will be in Massachusetts, estimates Vicky Negus, SNAP policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. She says the new rule targets poor adults whose limited education and skills shut them out of jobs that provide consistent hours and reliable pay. Some have criminal histories, undiagnosed mental health and cognitive issues, and other challenges that make it hard to get regular hours. Nonetheless, they want jobs: Most of Negus’s clients in this group work in the year before or after getting SNAP.

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“I have never spoken to someone receiving SNAP because they wanted to,” she said.

The pain here will go beyond those whose benefits are cut, however. SNAP is a remarkably efficient program, with benefits that exceed its costs: Slashing it pulls sales from the 5,400 supermarkets and corner stores in this state where recipients buy food. Food-insecure people tend to have more health problems, which costs us all. Cutting SNAP also puts more pressure on food banks, which can’t possibly make up the shortfall, said Catherine Drennan, spokeswoman for The Greater Boston Food Bank.

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And the Trump administration plans further cuts, stripping benefits from millions more, including some children who now qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school.

Republicans get away with this kind of thing because voters still buy the pernicious stereotypes of those on public assistance. Never mind the fact that SNAP benefits mostly children, the elderly, and disabled people; that whites make up the largest share of recipients; and that people who live in those politically sacrosanct rural communities use SNAP at higher rates than those in cities.

“Government dependency has never been the American dream,” proclaimed Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary.

It depends who’s doing the dreaming.

In addition to food assistance, Perdue also oversees billions in assistance to farmers. For decades, the US government has been shielding agriculture from the market forces the GOP claims to revere: Paying farmers to offset fluctuations in prices, yields, and exports, among other things, with subsidies that topped $13 billion in 2017.

Lately, they’ve been getting more, as the president has committed to $28 billion in bailouts to compensate them for losses caused by his disastrous trade policies. That’s more than 40 percent of what SNAP costs annually.

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Unlike SNAP, however, the bailouts have been a model of inefficiency and waste. President Trump is overcompensating farmers for their losses, paying them far more than his tariffs have cost them. Some of the boodle is going to people who are barely farmers at all. (Hey, Senator Chuck Grassley!) Most of it is buoying not mom-and-pop farms, but the giant operations that gobble them up.

Surely it’s just a coincidence that this aid goes mostly to the president’s political supporters, in Midwest states he won in 2016. If this were happening anywhere else, you’d think he was using taxpayer dollars to buy their votes. But it’s happening in Real America, where everyone works hard, hates handouts, and deserves a leg up.

Unlike the lazy folks who can’t put food on the table everywhere else. They’re on their own.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.