The Oklahoma Republican Party is making the case against food stamps by comparing poor people to animals, reviving a stereotype that’s often deployed against Americans who rely on government benefits to feed their families.
In a Facebook post published Monday night, the Oklahoma GOP suggested that the millions of Americans receiving food stamps this year should not be enrolled in the program because “the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”
Opponents of maintaining state and federal funding for social safety net programs have a long history of making comparisons between government beneficiaries and animals, which is widely considered to be a racially coded insult.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once said that the current welfare system is “turning children into young animals and they are killing each other.” A GOP congressional candidate in Texas, meanwhile, compared welfare beneficiaries to donkeys.
The “don’t feed the animals” meme in particular is popular among GOP candidates. In 2012, a Minnesota state representative made nearly the exact same comparison while making the case that less money should be allocated to food stamps. In 2010, a Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina criticized food stamps by saying his grandmother “told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals” because “they breed.” Both later apologized.
Largely because of this attitude toward people living in poverty, signing up for food stamps remains deeply stigmatized in the United States. Outreach coordinators for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) say that a big part of their job is challenging misconceptions about exactly what the program does and how many different kinds of people rely on it. In fact, there’s relatively high labor force participation among people in the SNAP program because it’s specifically designed to supplement the wages of low-income workers.
Some government agencies in the state have responded. In a statement released on Tuesday, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services said, "Shame on you for comparing people in poverty and with disabilities to animals! That was an appalling and uniformed comment. Obviously you did not bother to know the majority of the 604,000 people receiving food benefits in Oklahoma are people who are aging, people with disabilities (including disabled veterans) and the working poor who are raising children. ...The people who need this meager benefit are dependent upon it in order to keep themselves and their children from starving. Is that the kind of dependency you are suggesting we discourage?"
Early on Tuesday afternoon, the Oklahoma Republican Party deleted the Facebook post and offered an apology "to those who were offended" and "for any misconceptions that were created."
"This post was supposed to be an analogy that compared two situations illustrating the cycle of government dependency in America, not humans as animals," wrote Randy Brogdon, the state GOP chairman. "However I do think that it’s important to have conversations about government welfare programs since our dependency on government is at its highest level ever. Quoting President Reagan, 'We should measure welfare’s success by how many people leave welfare, not by how many are added.'"