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Do Americans have a right to eat? Republican rep won't say

"Is every American entitled to eat?" It's not a trick question, but it's one a prominent Republican member of Congress struggled to answer.
People receive free groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City, Dec. 11, 2013. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
People receive free groceries at a food pantry run by the Food Bank For New York City, Dec. 11, 2013.

When we hear condemnations of North Korea's dictatorship, we routinely consider the country's heartbreaking treatment of its own people, including allowing North Koreans to starve while its regime devotes resources to its weapons programs.

There's an underlying assumption behind the condemnations: people should have food and responsible governments should take steps to ensure that their population can eat.

There's some question, however, about the degree to which U.S. officials fully embrace this principle. Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), a prominent voice in Congress on agriculture policy, spoke to NPR's Scott Simon about Donald Trump's plans to slash investments in food stamps. It led to an interesting exchange:

SIMON: Well, let me ask you this bluntly - is every American entitled to eat?SMITH: Well, they - nutrition, obviously, we know is very important. And I would hope that we can look to...SIMON: Well, not just important, it's essential for life. Is every American entitled to eat?

The Nebraska Republican wouldn't answer directly, saying only that it's "essential" that Americans get nutrition -- which is true as a matter of biology, but not an answer to the question.

Which is unsatisfying for a reason. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted the fact today that in the United States in 2017, "a powerful member of Congress refuses to grant that Americans should be able to count on eating food."

Trump's budget, released last week, would cut programs for low- and moderate-income Americans by $2.5 trillion over 10 years, accounting for 59 percent of the budget's overall reductions, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The group, a liberal outfit with a reputation for solid math, puts the 10-year cuts to food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at $193.2 billion, while millionaires would be poised to receive tax cuts of more than $2 trillion.Until the past few years, food stamps had the support of Republicans and Democrats alike.... Food stamps, which give recipients about $1.40 per meal, made serious malnutrition rare in America, and studies by CBPP and others have found food stamps lift more than 8 million people out of poverty, nearly half of them children.

And yet, both the Trump White House and much of the Republican Congress believes it's time to slash the program.

There's no great mystery behind Rep. Adrian Smith's caution in response to the "is every American entitled to eat" question. The moment policymakers acknowledge an entitlement -- in effect, a right -- it's incumbent on officials to extend and ensure a benefit. If Americans have a right to an education, their elected representatives have a responsibility to fund a school system. If Americans have a right to affordable health care, officials have to guarantee our ability to see a doctor.

And if Americans are entitled to eat, Congress can't realistically do what many GOP policymakers are apparently eager to do.