In the face of possible cuts to food stamp programs, CNN let Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker rail against the House cuts and publicize his own attempt to live off of food stamps for a week. On Friday night host Piers Morgan lauded Booker, calling his food stamp challenge "something really pretty extraordinary" and "a life-changing experience for him."
In addition, Morgan cast Republicans as villains wanting to protect the rich at the expense of the hungry, asking GOP pollster Kristen Soltis, "do you feel comfortable that the Republicans are prepared to slash investment into something like food stamps in an effort to try and protect – as it seems to many people -- the wealthiest two percent from paying more tax?"
Morgan began his show exaggerating the food stamp crisis, hyping "the reality of an estimated 46 million Americans. Simply put, they can't afford to eat. They live off food stamps." Morgan teed up Booker to decry the House "savagely" cutting the food stamp budget.
Nowhere in the segment was the question raised about the rising number of Americans on food stamps, which reached an all-time high in September. Back in January, CNN covered for President Obama by deflecting blame for the record number of food stamp recipients to former President Bush.
On Monday's Starting Point, Soledad O'Brien also brought up cuts to food stamps and allowed Booker to connect it with his "food stamp challenge."
"Timothy Geithner said the farm bill subsidies could be on the table. And if, in fact the farm bill, which is I think $300 billion, if in fact that is on the table, the bulk of your food stamps program is under the umbrella of the farm bill. In fact, it's almost 70 percent of the farm bill, which is kind of interesting, right? This brings us back into what your experiment was over the last week, the SNAP challenge, living off of food stamps," she told Booker.
Again, Booker slammed the House bill. "The President is saying he won't make cuts to the program with the House bill – makes pretty deep cuts, cutting recipients, hurting the 46 million Americans who are receiving this benefit right now. Which I can tell you from now from very personal experience, it ain't that much money."
PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT
[9:01 p.m. EST]
PIERS MORGAN: Good evening. We begin tonight with our big story, the reality of an estimated 46 million Americans. Simply put, they can't afford to eat. They live off food stamps. These are men, women and children in America. Hunger is not just a third world problem. It's a massive problem right here in the United States right now.
And Cory Booker is determined to tackle it. The Newark mayor is doing something really pretty extraordinary this week. He's living off food stamps himself, just food stamps. He has just $29 and change for seven days' worth of food. This is what he bought. It's a life-changing experience for him. A moment he sees as a wake-up call for the whole of America. He hasn't talked to anyone yet on camera after starting this, but that all changes tonight. And joining me for his exclusive interview is Mayor Cory Booker. Welcome to you. Why did do you this?
CORY BOOKER: You know, it actually started just by a late night conversation over Twitter with a woman who was pooh-poohing government's role in provision nutrition for kids. And I shot back at her, and we had a couple exchanges and then finally I just said, why don't we both live on food stamps? And I went to bed that night not thinking much of it and got up the next morning and it had spread really through the social media world, and was a bigger story. I called my staff and I said we're doing this.
MORGAN: You were on day four of this. This is the exact pile of food that you got.
MORGAN: What is interesting to me, you spent $29.78 on this, but when we tried to match it around here, in New York, we had to spend $57.37.
MORGAN: Implying that the government rate, if you like, for this food is clearly based right at the lowest possible level and may not be even possible for many people on food stamps.
BOOKER: Right, and that's what we want to highlight. You have folks who live in nutrition and food deserts who don't have access to fresh and healthy food. I'm very lucky I live a mile away from there so I walked to the supermarket. Because many people can't just get in their car and go to the supermarket.
So what we're trying to do is not just see what the challenges are on living on this amount of money, but also showing the other problems we have that cause food insecurity in the United States of America, that cause obesity, that contribute to our health care costs. There are so many things about food systems that are broken in America and one of them is just people having access to healthy, affordable food.
MORGAN: In 2011, the average monthly food stamp benefit was $133.26 per person in New Jersey, which works out a little more than $33 a week. So just slightly above what you bought for yourself. It's day four of the challenge and this is the SNAP challenge. For those who don't know, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that is the food stamp program. How are you feeling? How are you finding it?
MORGAN: Let's watch a little clip from some of the footage of you on this challenge.
BOOKER: A tough choice that I'm going to have to live with this week is that I used my money to buy a lot of different things but not caffeine, and so I'm going to be going this week without coffee, without Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke. Worried about my food supplies which are actually dwindling down, and I'm going to have to figure out a way to ration a little bit better and go perhaps with smaller meals.
(End Video Clip)
MORGAN: So, the majority of people that I have seen on Twitter are supporting what you're doing. They like the way you're highlighting this. Some people are criticizing you. CNN's Christine Romans said this on Wednesday. Just have a look and react to this.
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN business correspondent: To live on SNAP, which is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it's not meant to be your only calorie intake source.
ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN anchor: Supplemental is the key.
ROMANS: Supplemental is the key. The government designs it so this is on top of what little money you might have, food pantries, soup kitchens. If you're going to survive on it, then you have to – we have to discuss as a country, are we – are taxpayers going to pay for every calorie somebody consumes? Are we going to completely support people -- 46 million people are getting food stamps.
(End Video Clip)
MORGAN: Your reaction?
BOOKER: First of all, I hope people are sniping. I hope people – I hope there's dialogue and attention on this at a time that it seems like our media is fascinated with the pregnancy of a princess. Why aren't we talking about issues of poverty? Why aren't we talking about issues of working families who are working full-time jobs and still can't make ends meet?
And so I'm happy that the discussion and the conversation is going on at a degree that we never imagined when it started, but I also want to let people know that the reality is the reality. There are many families, and I talked to a group of security guard workers yesterday who make seven dollars and change, don't have health care benefits, so if they get sick, they have to either take days off of work and lose that money or work through the sickness, who don't have retirement benefits, who find it hard at the end of a month to pay their rent, to buy their food, and are struggling. These are full-time people that are working.
So she may think it's a supplemental program, but for many Americans who are working even, this is the difference between going deep into food insecurity, being – not being able to provide for their families and having a bridge to stability. So I just – right now, what bothers me and concerns me is on two levels: a local level and a national level. National level right now in Congress – and this is where I give Senator Stabenow and also our President, who are trying to protect the SNAP programs, and a House bill that's savagely cutting this.
MORGAN: $16 billion is what –
BOOKER: $16 billion. Right. So, here you have veterans, families, over a million veterans, people who work for us who are depending on this program. You have military families, thousands of them depending on this program. You have kids, because but for programs like this, they would be going to school nutritionally unfit to learn.
And her point about our economy, and this is the short-sighted thinking that so many people have about government expenditures – there is absolutely government waste, fraud, abuse. But when it comes to programs like this, you actually get a long-term and immediate benefit from that expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
MORGAN: Nobody can tell me this is a wasteful amount of food for an American.
BOOKER: But understand this, when I – if I was on food stamps or SNAP program, I used that money, that dollar that I spend on my food actually comes – recycles through the economy and produces $1.70 or more of a benefit to our GDP because you know what? People produce this food. The truckers depend on that. The store owners – it actually creates jobs in communities, have millions of dollars of money that people are actually expending.
MORGAN: Let's move on to something that Cory Booker was talking about earlier. And I'll come to you, Kristen Soltis, first. This whole issue of food stamps in America – I was pretty shocked when I saw these statistics, 46 million Americans now on food stamps. When you actually see a pile of food and you realize that is it for the week and it's pretty un-nutritious, it's what it is – really quite disturbing, actually. What should be done about this?
MORGAN: But quickly, Kristen – and I'll come to you in a moment, Joe – but Kristen, do you feel comfortable that the Republicans are prepared to slash investment into something like food stamps in an effort to try and protect – as it seems to many people -- the wealthiest two percent from paying more tax?
MORGAN: Charles, bring it round to the fiscal cliff because it's all sort of interwoven here. It's all about basically where should government be spending money, where should cuts be made, and who in the end should up paying the lion's share of this. My sense is this will not go over the cliff, and the reason it won't is that public opinion is now raging so hard against the Republicans in all the polls that you see that they've lost the argument. So why go over a cliff and make it worse for yourselves?
BLOW: Right. I think you're right about that, because all of the polls that I've seen say exactly what you're saying, which is that the Republicans will be blamed if we go over the cliff.
But the first part of your question I think is the more crucial part of the question, which is how do you not cut off your nose to spite your face. If you do things -- you make cuts that harm children who need to learn, who need to be able to go to school on a full stomach and be able to stay a whole day and have programs that will allow them to be competitive with children in China and India, if you need that to be a real situation in America for us to be competitive 10 years from now when we're not in a recession, you have to look at that and say, this is not smart policy for the long term.
And whatever we have to do to protect and insulate those children, we do that. Now, how do we do that without – you know, they were talking about before with Food Stamps is, that's the hammock versus safety net discussion. We don't want it to be a hammock for people, where people just kind of lounge around and expect to get Food Stamps forever. But you need a safety net when the bottom falls out. And the bottom has fallen out. And at this point, it is very cool to be able to look -- not cool, kind of cruel, even, to be able to look at what people can buy, what they can get, and whether or not that is sufficient.
MORGAN: I think Cory Booker's doing a great thing. Because just having it on the desk here was fascinating, what you actually buy. And then to realize you try and buy it in New York, for example, could cost you up to 60 dollars, which you just don't physically have.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Timothy Geithner said the farm bill subsidies could be on the table. And if, in fact the farm bill, which is I think $300 billion, if in fact that is on the table, the bulk of your food stamps program is under the umbrella of the farm bill. In fact, it's almost 70 percent of the farm bill, which is kind of interesting, right? This brings us back into what your experiment was over the last week, the SNAP challenge, living off of food stamps.
CORY BOOKER: Well that's very insightful. If you look at the President's plan, which is a very balanced approach, he actually calls for infrastructure investment in things that are going to give us long-term economic return, because if you think you're going to solve our problem – if we wanted to go on a diet and we said hey, we're going to do it by cutting out a pound of flesh, it's going to hurt the body as a whole.
And so actually food stamps is an area that you get a long-term economic benefit, especially if you think about the children, the families that have children, which is a large percentage of the people receiving so-called food stamps SNAP challenge – getting them a chance to go to school with a nutritionally good foundation is important.
And so there's two bills right now. There's one that actually does make cuts in the Senate. It's very difficult, very challenging. You've got senators like Senator Stabenow in Michigan who are saying we're going to do innovative things on the local level, better access to fresh and healthy foods. But we're going to try to protect the recipients. We're still making cuts to the program. The President is saying he won't make cuts to the program with the House bill – makes pretty deep cuts, cutting recipients, hurting the 46 million Americans who are receiving this benefit right now. Which I can tell you from now from very personal experience, it ain't that much money.
O'BRIEN: You did it for a week, and it's a supplement. The "S" in SNAP stands for supplement, but a lot of people don't use it for supplement.
BOOKER: Exactly. You say it's a supplement, but this is a very tough time in America. And there are people, there are veterans are on the SNAP program, children on SNAP program, families with disabled folks on SNAP program, even some, a small amount of military families who are on the SNAP program. So many people, you say it's a supplement, but it's something they rely heavily on. In fact, a large percentage of Americans who rely on SNAP, it actually pulls them above the poverty line.