We Need a Robin Hood Tax for Welfare Relief

We Need a Robin Hood Tax for Welfare Relief

I wish I found the idea of cutting $39 billion from the federal government’s food stamp program  (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) during a recession unbelievable. But, as usual, House Republicans continue to thwart all belief and reason.

Some Republicans like Paul Ryan (R-WI) are concerned about the program’s sustainability. They worry that the size of the program will not shrink fast enough over the next four years. However, as Travis Waldron of Think Progress notes, SNAP is based upon income and not employment, therefore explaining the program’s projected marginal decrease.

Other House Republicans like Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Tim Heulskamp (R-KS) relied on constructing a false dichotomy between jobs and welfare benefits to advocate for cutting SNAP. Cantor rationalized his arguments for cutting the program through a paltry expression of compassion. “This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most. Most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job,” Cantor argued. Despite the fact that SNAP is designed to supplement income, and not totally replace it, Cantor, Heulskamp, and other Republicans would have Americans believing otherwise. Heulskamp even trotted out a new poster child for welfare fraud in defending program cuts: “If you’re a healthy adult and don’t have someone relying on you to care for them, you ought to earn the benefits…Look for work. Start job training to improve your skills or do community service. But you can no longer sit on your couch or ride a surfboard like Jason [Greenslate] in California and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”

28-year-old San Diego resident Jason Greenslate plays in a rock band and claims that he buys sushi and lobster with SNAP benefits. Greenslate plays in a rock band and laughed at the idea of getting a normal job.
28-year-old San Diego resident Jason Greenslate claims that he buys sushi and lobster with SNAP benefits.
Charles Murray. Wikimeida

Heulskamp’s and Fox News’s deployment of the “white surfer guy,” Jason Greenslate, as a symbol is another chapter in the history of demonizing welfare recipients. Historically, conservative and liberal policymakers demonized black and brown women on welfare. Ronald Reagan popularized the term “welfare queen” while running for the Republican presidential primaries in 1976. He did so by belittling Linda Taylor, a black woman living on Chicago’s South Side who allegedly defrauded Illinois’s welfare system during his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. Of course, Reagan’s arguments for dismantling the welfare state depended upon using an outlier to stir the racial resentment of white New Deal Democrats and conservatives. What appears striking about Heulskamp and Fox is their willingness to demonize a young white man in their efforts to undermine SNAP. Yet, their choice to target Greenslate is less surprising when one considers context. Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped turn black woman and motherhood into a serious subject of popular discussion during the 1960s and 1970s. Also, anxieties about race, civil rights, black power, poverty, riots, and economic crisis also dominated the 1960s and 1970s. The symbol of the “lazy white surfer guy” reflects anxieties about the precarious position of the white male worker in an ever-shifting post-manufacturing and post-financial crisis economy. Even Charles Murray, the author of a popular 1984 anti-welfare screed, Losing Ground:  American Social Policy, 1950-1980, has lamented the decline of white workers’ culture in his recent book. Conservatives’ use of Greenslate also reflects a contention about this generation’s work ethic that has been percolating in the media recently—that millennials are a lazy and entitled bunch.*

Unfortunately, the deployment of negative symbols and the either-or framing of the problem—people want to work or they want to milk welfare—not only fails to address job loss and poverty in the Great Recession, it overlooks the punitive aspects of our economy. First, our economy has failed to create enough well-paying jobs. Second, many Americans are forced to work harder for lower wages and even less benefits. Lastly, Republicans have forced working and poorer Americans to take on a greater tax burden since passing tax increases for the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes is deemed too much to ask. So, if one pairs Republicans’ framing of the issue with the perpetual budget crises and austerity measures, conversations about more basic solutions to addressing an anemic economy, such as a national living wage law and a full employment economy, are crowded out. Americans are left relying upon the safety net’s shreds.

Really, House Republicans’ framing of the problem is beside the point.  It is hard to take Cantor’s weak attempt with identifying with struggling Americans seriously considering how Republicans have sought to shred the safety net since the beginning of the recession. These sorts of actions and their governance through crisis suggests that House Republicans simply do not care. They do not care for the working Americans who have to supplement their meager incomes with such benefits. Democratic Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) demonstrated this point in congressional debates about SNAP. She points out how congressional Republicans operate in a comically ironic world governed by a blinding and tone deaf cognitive dissonance—they can pat themselves on the back for taking a hatchet to food stamps as they spend taxpayer money on their own lavish dinners. This party concerns itself with controlling female reproduction and making sure the few drug addicts do not feed from the public troth of welfare, not pushing the private sector to create more jobs. For them, discipline is best for America’s workers and the poor. They aim to impose their narrow authoritarian vision of society onto the rest of the country.

House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor

So I have a not-so-novel, yet better, idea. How about we demand Congress to force corporations and banks to subsidize SNAP directly? Pass a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. Tax a healthy percentage of corporate profits not used for innovation or to create employment . The banks and corporations surely have the money.

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the near financial market collapse. It also marked the anniversary of Americans bailing them out. The banks paid us back, but their antics ushered in the Great Recession. Their reckless actions helped create the conditions for SNAP’s expansion. It is no secret how the recession inflicted serious damage on working Americans. The U.S. economy lost 8.8 million jobs during the recession. The economy gained more than 3 million of those jobs back, but the National Employment Law Project found that 40 percent of the growth occurred in sectors that pay $13.83 an hour or less—food service, retail, and employment services. Fifteen percent of Americans now live in poverty. SNAP enrollment increased by 56% between 2007 and 2012. Forty-six million Americans participated in the program in 2012. Of course Republicans argue that this is Obama’s economy, and do not get me wrong, Democrats have left many Americans wanting, but Republicans conveniently fail to acknowledge the role their own obstructionism has played in stunting economic recovery.

Robin Hood Protest. Robin Hood, Flickr

Yet despite the national debt, budget deficits, and the unequal recovery, the U.S. economy is far from broke. The Dow Jones average reached pre-crash levels in 2013. Last year, U.S.-based banks posted their highest profits since 2006. Corporations like Apple have taken legalized tax evasion to a new level. Apple stashed a cool $300 billion in overseas profits in Ireland in the last four years. And sources on the left and right have reported that businesses in the private sectors are sitting on at least $1 trillion in assets.  A Robin Hood tax would not magically eliminate all poverty and unemployment, but it would represent a good first step towards that goal. Such a measure could also help lay the foundation for a 21st century social contract.

SNAP only cost the federal government $81 billion last year. Imagine what we could accomplish if we closed corporate tax loopholes and tax this cash reserve?  Imagine how many SNAP programs we could pay for? We sure could use more cash to invest in Main Street—we could create more jobs, rebuild public education, invest in research and technology, save hundreds of Americans from home foreclosure, create better programs designed to eliminate all kinds of Americans’ debt, build more worker-owned sustainable industries and local economies. All of this would amount to both a serious short-term stimulus and a long-term investment in the nation’s future.

I am sure Cantor and other conservatives would deplore such an ambitious plan. They would probably dismiss it as a product of class warfare. Maybe it is? Or maybe I just caught the beat that their band is playing. The Koch brothers should not be the only ones allowed to dance to the sweet tunes of class warfare, nor should the Republicans should be its only composers. And what is someone supposed to call cutting the food stamp program during a recession? And who decided that workers deserved more punishment than corporate tax dodgers and the banks?

It sounds like class warfare to me. A Robin Hood tax is worth dancing for.


*I hesitate to see Greenslate and the “white surfer dude” as a replacement of the “welfare queen.” Making such an argument overshadows how conservatives continue to demonize poor black and brown women, and poor women generally. Ultimately, the advent of the “lazy white surfer guy” is just one of the multiple tropes that conservatives can deploy in their war on welfare.


Fetured Image Caption: Robin Hood Tax campaign protest. Robin Hood, Flickr

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.

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