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Don't Feed the "Animals"

Oklahoma Republican Party chair Randy Brogdon has come under fire for a post he made last week to his organization's Facebook page.

Criticism of Brogdon was swift and strident.

"The Oklahoma Republican Party is making the case against food stamps by comparing poor people to animals," proclaimed Think Progress. The Huffington Post reported, "A Republican Senate candidate equated food stamp recipients to wild animals in a Facebook post Monday." And a commenter at Democratic Underground responded with, "Because we all equate feeding animals with feeding human children?"

As rhetoric, the response is extremely effective. Brogdon retracted the post to minimize the negative attention.

But in terms of dialogue about the value of food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), and of federal aid in general, this approach leads nowhere. It only serves to foreclose a serious conversation, ensuring that the same arguments will continue to be raised year after year.

The proof of this is in my links above. Of the three, only the Think Progress quote is actually a response to Brogdon's comments. The Huff Post article was a response to Senate candidate Annette Benning of South Dakota, who shared virtually the same statement on Facebook a year ago. And the Democratic Underground post was a response to the same statement in 2012, found in what appears to be a newspaper clipping under the heading, "submitted by Billy Fleming".

This meme keeps getting reposted, not because it denigrates SNAP recipients, but because it makes a point about the formation of habits. And like it or not, habit formation is controlled by the basal ganglia, a brain region we share with all other vertebrates. Rats learn to navigate mazes the same way humans do, frogs learn to avoid unpleasant chemicals the same way we do, and chimpanzees shun those who are seen as nonconformists or noncontributors the same way Republicans do.

So in the abstract, conservatives are not wrong for continuing to spread this meme. They're just misinformed. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services points out, in a response to Brogdon, that the majority of people receiving food assistance are either working poor, disabled (including disabled veterans), or retirement age. Able-bodied adults without children cannot receive food stamps unless they are employed part time. The average SNAP benefit is less than five dollars per day.

And SNAP is the easiest form of aid to qualify for. The Temporary Assitance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly known simply as "welfare", imposes a 24-month maximum benefit period (and 60 months lifetime), and requires recipients to get job training or look for work while receiving aid. The age of no-strings-attached government handouts is long gone.

The reality is, federal aid has already gone through the overhaul Republicans are calling for. It happened nearly 20 years ago, but don't expect the attacks on welfare recipients to end any time soon. By now, this meme has become a habit.

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