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Sunday, December 4, 2016

For decades now, the Republican Party has been honing its reputation for hostility toward the downtrodden, the poor, the disadvantaged. While a few of its leaders have tried to either shed that image or to dress it up with a more appealing facade — think George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — lately the GOP has been enthusiastically embracing its inner Ebenezer Scrooge.

Consider its all-out assault on one of the government’s most venerable programs to assist the most vulnerable, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, usually known as “food stamps.” Last month, the GOP-dominated House passed an agriculture bill that omitted funding for the food stamp program — partly because the Republican caucus disagreed over whether cuts to the program should be merely harsh or extremely severe. Congressional conservatives have said they also want to include a work requirement and mandatory drug tests for beneficiaries.

Not so long ago, hardliners sought to cloak this sort of cruelty in the language of the greater good: the need to reduce government spending. But last month’s bill didn’t even attempt that pretense: It included billions in agricultural subsidies for wealthy farming interests, including some Republican members of Congress. It was the first time since 1973 that the House of Representatives omitted the food stamp program from the farm bill.

“It sounds to me like we’re in a downright mean time,” said Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which procured and distributed 45 million pounds of donated food and groceries in the last year. He said that his agency has doubled its distribution over the last four years, since the Great Recession devastated household incomes.

The profile of his client base has changed, too, over the last four years, he said. About 20 percent of beneficiaries report that this is the first time they’ve ever asked for assistance from government or charitable programs. Among them are people who once belonged to the secure middle class; some were formerly donors or volunteers at the food bank.

Moreover, Bolling said, about half the people who seek food assistance have jobs.

“They’re keeping their part of the social contract. They are getting up every day and going to a job, maybe two jobs. If a man gets up and goes to work every day, I don’t care what his job is, he ought to be able to feed his family,” he said.