09/14/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

The Case for a Food Stamp President

The Presidential campaign is now careening from convention to gaffe to speech to debate, and Congressional and Senate races are up on the air in earnest. The parties are drawing contrasts on many fronts: Medicare, Social Security, health care, the right to choose, and a stable foreign policy.

But another major difference is on basic assistance for the poor. Our safety net, particularly food, will likely be on the chopping block if Mitt Romney wins in November. The Ryan plan cuts food assistance by 17%. Almost three-fourths of SNAP recipients are families with children, and more than a fourth of recipients include households with seniors or people with disabilities.

Democrats seem reluctant to bring this up. Team Romney's weeks of advertising on the (manufactured) welfare work requirement debate, and cries that Obama is the "food stamp president" may reinforce the sense that preserving the safety net is a losing issue for Democrats, one that activates racial tensions and concerns about bloated government. But research may suggest otherwise.

The issue of food assistance has come up in some of my firm's focus groups this summer. As you might expect, many do indeed worry about abuse, even citing specific examples of people they've seen or known first-hand. Perceived abuse might come in many forms--buying luxury food items, lying on an application, or just not looking hard enough for work. And while this concern occasionally tiptoes into racially loaded language, minority participants in all-minority groups express similar worries about people gaming the system (something the Obama administration has actually tackled). Nonetheless I haven't heard participants say assistance should simply disappear, or that we should cut aid to hungry children.

Public polling confirms these findings. A just-released poll for the Food Research & Action Center shows half (55%) want to see more spending addressing hunger, 57% feel SNAP is "important for the country," and even more (75%) say cutting SNAP is the wrong way to reduce federal spending. In 2011, CNN showed more people actually want to see funding for food and nutrition assistance increased (34%) than either "decreased a little" or "decreased a lot" (15%, 10% respectively). Similarly, this GQRR poll (also from 2011) shows a majority oppose cuts to subsidized meals for kids as a way to reduce the budget deficit, second only to public school funding in a list of 10 programs.

Support for these programs may stem in part from so many Americans feeling personally squeezed. According to a Pew poll released this week, a third (32%) self-identify as lower-class, more than in 2008. And in a study of the middle class released a few weeks ago, Pew showed 85% say it is more difficult to afford a middle class lifestyle than a decade ago. And this must-read story from the New York Times this past February interviews people suspicious of, yet reliant on, a variety of safety net programs.

This makes for choppy political waters, where voters may need government assistance themselves, feel they pay more into the system than they receive in return, and also worry others are enjoying the reverse. These worries belie the greater fear: someone is getting a better deal than you are.

For Republicans, tapping into this fear is simple. Their advertising on ending the welfare work requirement cleverly (but inaccurately) highlights the phrase "they just send you your welfare check."

But the Democrats' argument can be simple too. The Ryan (and Romney) plan would cut millions from food for hungry children. And yes, someone is getting a better deal than you: the super-wealthy. They are paying a lower percentage in taxes, while their incomes and wealth grow, pulling away from a shrinking middle class that's losing both income and wealth.

In February, Romney said of the safety net: "if it needs repair, I'll fix it." But the policies of the party he now leads are more in line with words he said right before: "I don't care about the very poor."

The more important question is: does America care about the very poor? Research shows they do.