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The economy's cratering, and families all across Tennessee are struggling to feed their children. But help is on the way. As part of the economic stimulus package, the federal government is sending Tennessee $800 million for food stamps for the next two years. Good news, right? Not according to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. He's fretting over how we ever will spend all that money without unreasonably raising the expectations of poor people.
Ramsey's comments to reporters today on this topic, which are transcribed after the jump, drew an immediate rebuke from House Democratic caucus chair Mike Turner.
"Let them eat cake. That's what he thinks," Turner said. "Our first priority in hard times like these is to make sure that people can eat. There are lot of poor people in Ron Ramsey's district, and he needs to be looking out for the poor people in his district."
Tennessee has one of the nation's stingiest food stamp programs, contributing only roughly $100 to a family's monthly food budget. At last report, one in six Tennesseans were receiving the benefit, and that number was going up fast. To be eligible, a family of four can't earn more than $27,560.
You'd think our elected leaders would be anxious to provide as much help for these families as possible with all the federal money that comes our way. But for Ramsey, the issue is what happens once that money disappears in a couple of years. He worries that too many families will become dependent on the extra help and demand that the state keep giving it. Here's what the Senate speaker said:
It's my understanding that we're getting about $800 million for food stamps and that has to be spent over the next two years. Now, you could assume that there's $800 million worth of people who aren't getting food stamps. Well, that's not the case. We're covering the people now who are supposed to get food stamps. So what do you do to spend that money? You can either raise the check that they're getting right now to spend that $800 million over the next two years or lower eligibility to get more people on. But if you do that, what do you do two years from now when the money runs out? I know how politically hard it is to take something away once it's been voted in.
What do you think we should do?
I don't know. I really don't know how you handle that right now and not create that brick wall. That's one example [of problems with the $4.5 billion in stimulus money the state is getting]. Obviously, I hope this doesn't turn into the case where the cure is literally worse than the disease and we are tiding people over for the next couple of years without hitting that brick wall. I really don't know.
Won't there be fewer people who need food stamps in two years?
That's a possibility. But at the same time if you lower eligibility or increase their check still there could be a brick wall. You'll be giving out more two years from now than you were today with the same qualifications. So that's still a brick wall either way. Obviously you keep your fingers crossed that less people need it. Yet at the same time, you'd still be spending more than you ordinarily would have even if less people need it because you've increased benefits or lowered eligibility.