Two weeks ago, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill that slashed $40 billion in food assistance to men, women, and children in need. Soon after, they refused to approve a spending bill to keep the government operating unless the bill contained provisions to cripple the Affordable Care Act, a law that will provide health care to more than 25 million uninsured Americans.
Democrats did not cave in to these demands, and the government was forced to shut down all nonessential services at 12:01 a.m. yesterday. Because of the shutdown, nearly 9 million low-income mothers and their infants stand to lose essential benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, which provides money for baby formula and food.
Modern Republicans’ callousness and willingness to overburden the poor evokes another act of state villainy—one that is especially pertinent because Republican leaders so often invoke the Bible. The suffering that the American people are forced to endure because of the GOP leadership’s actions calls to mind the Israelites in Egypt under the unjust rule of Pharaoh. It was before the Exodus, and Pharaoh had forced them into hard labor making bricks. Despite long hours of backbreaking work, the Israelites were barely able to meet the required daily quota. Then, Pharaoh made their lives even harder, ordering their supervisors to stop supplying them with straw, a basic ingredient in making bricks. Instead, the Israelites had to gather their own straw wherever they could find it and still meet their daily quota.
It was an impossible task, but Pharaoh pretended otherwise. While overburdening the Israelites so they wouldn’t be able to listen to Moses talk about uprising, he complained about their idleness and had them beaten.
Turn the clock ahead 3,000 years, and you’ll find a swarm of modern-day Pharaohs in Washington visiting cruel punishments on innocent people. When it comes to denying food assistance, some of them proclaim falsehoods with the whip in their hands. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) and other Republicans even had the gall to quote the Bible in defending cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
Aside from the fact that Rep. Fincher and his faux-moralist buddies completely misinterpreted this scripture passage, they are glaringly ignorant of the actual work status of millions of SNAP recipients. About 45 percent of those who get SNAP benefits have earnings. Furthermore, Republican insistence on work requirements for SNAP recipients is disturbingly out of touch with a postrecession America in which every job opening has several people fighting for it—and in which the gains from the economic recovery went to the top 20 percent of people.
Rep. Fincher and his colleagues should start reading the news. They would learn about Americans who hold two jobs and still live in homeless shelters because of low pay and the lack of affordable housing. They would discover how difficult it is to survive on a food budget of $4.50 per day, the SNAP allotment. And they might realize that slashing nutrition assistance for millions of Americans is the modern-day equivalent of forcing a vulnerable population to make bricks without straw.
Or they might not.
It turns out that self-righteousness and hypocrisy go hand in hand with this crew—particularly with Rep. Fincher, who personally collected $3.48 million in taxpayer farm subsidies from 1999 to 2012. In 2012 alone, Fincher received $70,000 of our tax dollars, an amount 44 times greater than the annual SNAP benefit of about $1,586 in his home state of Tennessee.
As for conservatives’ oft-cited argument that the Bible tells us to give to the poor through charitable programs rather than the federal government, the truth is that many charities—such as Catholic Charities USA and others that conservatives hold up as beacons—get a significant amount of their funding from the government. Catholic Charities USA, for instance, gets almost 70 percent of its operating budget from federal programs.
Another inconvenient truth: Nearly 9 million Americans work full time but earn such low wages that they qualify for SNAP assistance. The problem could be fixed by raising the minimum wage to a living wage, enabling workers to earn enough to feed their families. Most conservatives in Congress, however, oppose raising the minimum wage, falsely claiming that it is a job killer. But you can’t have it both ways. If you refuse to pay workers a living wage, then you need to provide them with assistance programs such as SNAP so they can put food on the table.
When Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to slash SNAP assistance two weeks ago—and when they shut down the government yesterday and denied food to low-income mothers and infants—they were Pharaohs taking away the straw. Here’s a Bible verse for them from Jeremiah 6:15: “Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.