It’s a big number and it gets people’s attention when they hear it: 47 million Americans receive food stamps in what is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program has expanded significantly under President Obama, who boosted benefits and allowed states to waive some work rules under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Still, the spiraling need for food assistance even as the unemployment rate has come down  is tied to the weak economy and jobs that are so marginal that millions of working people earn so little they still qualify for SNAP.

For decades, since the 1970s, food stamps enjoyed bipartisan backing, with farm-state senators and legislative icons George McGovern and Bob Dole championing the program. More recently, even the authors of the famed Simpson-Bowles report on deficit reduction left SNAP untouched. But House Republicans have a different mind-set about food stamps and want to cut $20.5 billion over 10 years from SNAP, five times more than the $4 billion authorized by a big bipartisan vote, 66 to 27, in the Senate this week, setting the stage for the kind of class-based and racially tinged debate about the poor that poisons our politics and on occasion breaks out into the open.

“All of a sudden it’s become a popular thing to go after SNAP. Some members want to eliminate it entirely,” says Rep. James McGovern (D-MA). “Balancing the budget by making it harder for poor people to get food is a rotten thing to do.”

Asked if he thought the fight over SNAP had a racial component, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), “No question about it.” Opponents of food stamps are “intentionally creating myths to demonize the poor,” he says. Democrats quietly tucked an amendment sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) into the bill rather than vote on the punitive measure. It prohibits murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from getting food stamps once they’ve served their time. Cleaver says one of the myths is that prisoners receive food stamps, “and most people never take the time to ask what day do they put the prisoners on a bus and drive them to the Safeway.”

“Here’s my prediction,” Cleaver told The Daily Beast. There will be a fierce battle on the House floor to reduce the $20 billion in cuts and a Democratic proposal to cut subsidies to big oil instead. Democrats will lose, “and so the bill coming out of the house will cause many people to puke because of the damage done to the poorest people.” Democrats may regain some ground when the bill goes to conference and must be reconciled with the Senate version, but splitting the difference between $4 billion and $20 billion in cuts would still be significant.

The farm bill is close to $1 trillion over 10 years, and nearly 80 percent of that is food stamps, making it an attractive target for the new ascendant libertarian wing of the GOP. “They see a program that helps people who aren’t helping themselves, and they want to kick the crap out of it,” says a House Democratic aide. House Speaker John Boehner inflamed the divisions within his own party when he said this week that he will vote for the farm bill. The Heritage Foundation’s political arm is running radio ads against three Republicans and one Democrat in agriculture districts, accusing them, complete with pig squeals in the background, of “putting a tuxedo on a pig” by backing a farm bill that is really a food stamp bill.

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