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Food-Stamp Fear Mongers and the Racist Politics of Hunger

Food-stamp fear mongers suggesting low-income undocumented immigrants are disproportionately consuming the $55.7 billion spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program every year are decisively false.

By James McWilliams


(Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

A frequent criticism of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is that it disproportionately benefits those who aren’t citizens of the United States. The cruder implication of this critique — that immigrant greed is trumping native hunger — is that Mexicans primarily cross the border to get welfare benefits, including food stamps, generously doled out by the American taxpayer.

Typical of this condemnation’s discordant tenor is a Breitbart news story that ran last summer. It claimed that SNAP “oftentimes disproportionately benefits families that include illegal aliens over all-citizen families.” In the piece, a fellow at the right wing Center of Immigration Studies is quoted as saying, “the proportion formula is inherently unfair to the citizen family.” The headline, echoing the cynical language du jour, says of the SNAP system that it’s “often rigged.” And, oh, that picture.

This rhetoric builds on a foundation well fortified during the Barack Obama era by a feckless team of food-stamp fear mongers. The Daily Caller founder Tucker Carlson characterized the situation thusly: “The Obama administration has entered into an agreement with the government of Mexico to give food stamps to Mexican immigrants … the second you arrive here from Mexico.” And then came Senator Jim Inhofe: “As long as we supply their demand here in this country, they’re going to figure out a way to get through. And I’m talking about with the food stamps.” Needless to say, neither of these claims was backed with anything like evidence. Instead, they were presented as instinctive, self-evident truths.

But a recent study by Stephanie Potochnick, a public-health professor at the University of Missouri, shows them to be decisively false. Drawing on census data from 1995 to 2013, Potochnick, whose study included 38,000 low-income families with kids, found that U.S. native families were far likelier to receive food stamps than Mexican immigrants. To in any way suggest that low-income undocumented immigrants are disproportionately consuming the $55.7 billion spent on SNAP can only be characterized, in light of these findings, as another example of post-truth polemics.

The numbers Polochnick presents are decisive. Seventeen percent of low-income households headed by a Mexican non-citizen (but including members who were citizens) received food stamps. That’s compared to 32 percent of low-income native U.S. households. Among low-income households made up only of non-citizen Mexicans — the ones that people such as Carlson and Breitbart and Inhofe highlighted — only 1 percent received food stamps. Furthermore, households that were headed by a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico reported having the least trouble (of the low-income families studied) paying for food or experiencing food insecurity.

The public-health implications of this study are one thing — but the political significance must not be overlooked. President-elect Donald Trump spent much of his campaign painting a dire picture of Mexican immigrants as criminals who crossed the border to take “our” jobs, violate women, evade taxes, and go on welfare. He has, with this generalized condemnation, endorsed the disingenuous logic of talking heads such as: a) Bill O’Reilly, who said: “In Mexico, there is no welfare. No food stamps. Now, a lot of them — Mexicans — want to come here,” and b) Fox and Friends participant Brian Kilmeade, who extended the stereotype back across the border, saying “the United States is promoting food stamps in Mexico.” The latter comment was the perfect set-up for a co-host to drive home the point: “What a good reason to come to the United States — they get food stamps.”

Of course, politically speaking, they might be geniuses (if of an evil sort). These characterizations score political points within certain voting demographics. The ostensible reason for their emotional effectiveness has a lot to do with the fact that the trope of the freeloading immigrant underscores a perceived injustice that, regrettably, many Americans seem all-too-eager to believe without the requisite evidence to justify it.

Potochnick’s study, by providing clear evidence that the overwhelming majority of SNAP benefits go to native, low-income U.S. citizens, leaves in the wake of its exhaustive research only one explanation for continuing to classify non-citizen Mexicans as welfare hogs: racism.