The GOP Has A Split Personality When It Comes To Food Stamps

04/15/2015 12:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

WASHINGTON -- In March, congressional Republicans unveiled a budget that could kick 11 million Americans off food stamps in future years.

On Wednesday, however, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, invited witnesses to testify about the effectiveness of food stamps. One of the witnesses, Keleigh Green-Patton of South Holland, Illinois, had received SNAP benefits at various times in her life.

"Without this program, I wouldn’t have been able to start my new career," Green-Patton said. "Many people call SNAP a safety net, but for me it was like a trampoline -- bouncing my family back into work and a brighter future."

Republicans are pursuing changes to the program on two separate tracks. The Republican budget bills introduced last month call for a 34 percent SNAP spending reduction over 10 years, but the food stamp cut is tied up with a broader measure that slashes government spending across the board and repeals the Affordable Care Act -- meaning it is unlikely to become law with President Barack Obama in the White House. It's not clear if the budget process will result in any food stamp cuts this year.

Meanwhile, the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), say they are conducting a long-term review of the program and that they have jettisoned all prior prejudices. Conaway invited Green-Patton to testify because he wants to get as far away as possible from the image of the "Food Stamp Surfer" -- the San Diego SNAP recipient whose lobster-buying habits were held up by Republicans in 2013 as an example of everything wrong with food stamps.

Conaway billed Wednesday's hearing as an opportunity to learn about how federal nutrition assistance works in tandem with private charities. Republicans have long argued that the federal government does too much, and that charitable organizations should have a bigger role relative to government in helping the poor.

"A successful solution for nutrition assistance is the responsibility of government and the charitable sector, a combination of the two working together," Conaway said. "Charitable organizations have greater flexibility to address the needs of their communities in ways the federal government is often not able to do by being accountable to the family in need and not the government program."

The four witnesses besides Green-Patton hailed from nonprofits that help poor people, and each stressed the importance of SNAP. Just to make sure, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), asked: "Nobody here is arguing that we should cut SNAP, am I correct?" The witnesses nodded.

Green-Patton currently works for a company that handles food service in schools. She said she owes her success in her current career to a three-month culinary training program at the Greater Chicago Food Depository 10 years ago. She had no income while enrolled in the program and used food stamps to feed her four kids.

"When the stamps ran out, my local church was kind enough to give us food baskets," she said. "It was just enough to help support our family until we could be in a better position to support ourselves."

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