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Cory Booker's food stamp challenge: 3 lessons

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Newark's Cory Booker: Empathetic mayor, or political panderer?
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Newark's Cory Booker: Empathetic mayor, or political panderer?

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a popular Democrat widely seen as a strong potential candidate for a New Jersey Senate seat in 2014, has vowed to spend the week eating off of $4 a day, which is what the average food-stamp recipient receives in benefits. Booker — known for heroic exploits such as rescuing a constituent from a burning building — agreed to take the so-called "food stamp challenge" after having a spat over Twitter with a 39-year-old North Carolina mom who said taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for school lunches and breakfasts for low-income kids. Booker said Americans "have a shared responsibility that kids go to school nutritionally ready," and urged the woman to take the challenge with him, to see what it's like to survive on what the government provides for low-income families. Here, three lessons from Booker's crash diet:

1. People who depend on food stamps don't have it as easy as conservatives think
To hear hardline conservatives tell it, you'd think people accept food stamps to "'take advantage' and live high off the hog," says Sasha Brown-Worsham at The Stir. Booker's admirable decision to tighten his belt for a week will expose the lie in that kind of thinking by demonstrating that "living on a 'food stamp budget' is not exactly luxurious." It's only $28 a week! Critics "ought to open their heart a little and stop whining. In a country as rich as ours, NO ONE should be hungry."

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2. Liberals like Booker are using low-income Americans as stage props
Booker is using the plight of the poor to score political points, says Matt Hadro at News Busters. But remember: "The number of Americans on food stamps increased under Obama and reached an all-time high during his presidency." Precisely, says Mary Evans at American Thinker. Booker should be calling attention to the millions who have slipped into poverty thanks to America's "job-killing president." Instead he's trying to shame people who don't like "shelling out billions" to "loafers addicted to government handouts." That might score Booker some liberal votes if he runs for higher office, but it's an "insult to all Americans — those on food stamps and those paying for them."

3. Privileged politicians have more to prove than those who grew up poor
Booker — a graduate of Stanford and Yale, Rhodes Scholar, and son of IBM executives — doesn't exactly come from a "disadvantaged background," Emory University professor Andra Gillespie, author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America, tells TIME. Like other well-to-do politicians, he has to go out of his way to prove to low-income voters that he's on their side. "Politicians who came from a hardscrabble background don't feel the need to do that because they grew up that way."

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