On Food Stamps, Tom Corbett Deserves Praise

Surprise, surprise — food stamp decision is good policy, better politics. Who cares if it was done for the right reason?

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

So, which Tom Corbett are we voting for this November?

Is it the governor who slashed education, cut benefits to Pennsylvania’s neediest families, and tried to make pure destitution — as opposed to mere impoverishment — the standard for receiving food stamps? Or is it the white knight who, when the food stamp program was threatened by federal cuts, this week suddenly and unexpectedly rode to the rescue?

I’d maybe vote for one of those guys. But probably not the other.

Yes, it seems that Corbett suddenly found his bleeding heart in an election year: If your narrative is that you really did create good jobs in Pennsylvania, it’s probably not helpful if people see their neighbors suddenly going hungry or begging for food. But it probably doesn’t pay to be too cynical about that: Without his move to divert some federal “heat and eat” energy assistance to shore up the food stamp program here, thousands of poor Pennsylvania families would’ve found themselves facing a $65 a month cut in their food aid.

“Gov Corbett recognized a hit of $65 a month to these families is a huge hit,” said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Welfare.

But what a governor giveth, a governor can taketh away. Corbett’s modus operandi for most of the last four years has been to take away. So a question arises: If he’s re-elected, will Corbett renew his commitment to the program a year from now?

“As far as I know, yes,” Gillis told me. “But we’ll have to review it next year.”

It’s a provisional “yes,” but we’ll take it for now. That raises a second issue: Did the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially lobby against the food stamp cuts before Congress made them official? It’s the question that helps us determine whether the governor’s recent action is a priority, or a pose.

Priority, said Jay Pagni, Corbett’s spokesman. He said the state was on record as opposing the food stamp cuts — even though, as an agricultural state, there was plenty else in the farm bill to support.

“Pennsylvania has been on record that there are vital programs at the federal level that need to be maintained,” he said, adding that the food stamp cuts hurt “hard-working, low-income Pennsylvanians.”

Why does this matter? Because the question of food stamp support is already critical in the election. Allyson Schwartz’s support for the Democratic nomination began to slip when she voted for the bill containing the food stamp cuts, angering party activists. If she still wins the nomination — despite Tom Wolf‘s current advantage in the polls — Corbett could well run to the left of her on the issue in the general election.

If you hated to see the food stamp program cut, after all, Tom Corbett doesn’t look like as bad a candidate as he might’ve a week ago: He’s even winning praise from Democrats on the issue. “This certainly is a positive step,” Sen. Bob Casey said through a spokesman. (Casey voted against the bill, citing the food stamp cuts.)

After four years of frustration, it’s not easy to give Tom Corbett the benefit of the doubt. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter why he did it: He did the right thing and made a move to repair a break in the state’s safety net.

“If an elected official does the right thing, it’s not for me to judge motivation,” Joel Berg, a “national antihunger advocate,” told the Inquirer. In other words: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m not sure Tom Corbett has earned re-election; this week, though, he’s at least earned some praise.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.