The War on Food Stamps

With the 2012 elections ten months away, nobody can say for sure what the winning issues will be. But it?s clear that Republicans are betting that they can tie President Obama to the federal food stamp program that now helps feed 46 million Americans, and thereby put him on the defensive.

South Carolina primary winner Newt Gingrich has labeled Obama ?the food stamp president.? Iowa primary winner Rick Santorum has followed a similar course, criticizing welfare spending that ?makes black people?s lives better by giving them somebody else?s money? and comparing food stamps to welfare programs in fascist Italy. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, has gone out of his way to stigmatize food stamps by requiring food stamp recipients to be fingerprinted in order to get their benefits.

The Republican strategy has its roots in Ronald Reagan?s 1976 bid for the presidency, when he made a black Chicago ?welfare queen? the centerpiece of his campaign against the welfare state. She was, Reagan told audiences, a woman with ?eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards.?

Reagan was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, but his attack on welfare paid off four years later. Targeting families using food stamps in the midst of America?s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, however, is a different story. Republicans may well have pulled a Herbert Hoover rather than a Ronald Reagan out of their bag of tricks in attacking a program that dates back to 1939.

Food stamp demographics don?t fit the stereotype Republicans present. Currently, 41 percent of food stamp recipients come from a household with earnings from a job (the ?working poor?); 36 percent are white, 22 percent are African American, and 10 percent are Hispanic. To qualify for food stamps a family of four needs an income at or below 130 percent of the official poverty level ($29,000) and savings of less than $2,000. According to the latest figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, 38 percent of those eligible for food stamps still don?t take advantage of them.

These days food stamp recipients get a plastic Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which acts like a debit card, rather than paper coupons. Even so, many food stamp recipients don?t feel good about using the EBT card, especially when it exposes them to stares in the supermarket checkout line. Only time will tell whether the Republican strategy of trying to make them feel even worse will be as successful in the national elections as it was in the South Carolina primary.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.