The word "freedom" looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as "freedom fries"?
The right's definition of freedom, however, isn't one that, say, FDR would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms -- freedom from want -- seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom's just another word for not enough to eat.
Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm subsidies.
In a way, you can see why the food stamp program -- or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program -- has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Barack Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of GDP. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.
Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can't find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it's supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.
The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.
Nor is that the program's only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn't recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we've had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?
Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example of turning the safety net into "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency."
One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp benefits were $4.45 a day. Also, about those "able-bodied people": almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, elderly or disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children.
Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that's what the evidence shows.
Economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They find that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn't -- and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.
SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.
Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the GOP, because it makes Republicans look like mean-spirited class warriors. Indeed it does. Because they are.
Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.