In a recent lengthy piece in praise of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, The Nation’s Lizzy Ratner selects a series of sympathetic examples to demonstrate the successful way in which SNAP acts as a true social safety net, a source-of-last-resort for the most desperate among us.

Food stamps, Ratner tells us, are the saving grace of women like Rosalind Block, “a middle-class single mother in Manhattan, who lost nearly half her piano students as well as her freelance gigs and medical coverage at almost the same moment in 2008 when her son became seriously ill,” and Carmen Perez-Lopez, who “suffered a stroke followed almost immediately by a breast cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2009 and quickly ran through her savings as she slogged through treatment.”

Who among us would wish to deprive these persons of help? The answer, of course, is nobody.

But some of us might want to forestall funneling money to folks like Leroy Fick, who remained eligible for food stamps even after he won a $2 million lottery jackpot, or a Seattle woman who was enrolled in SNAP at the same time that she lived in a $1.2 million beachfront home.

Ms. Ratner doesn’t mention either of those examples, though — and it’s because she apparently failed to research what might actually motivate food stamp reformers that she falls back on an implausible explanation for their opposition to the waste, fraud and abuse that still inheres in the program. Racism, Ratner concludes, is at the heart of any attempt to rein in misuse. She writes:

The deep racism at the heart of conservative food stamp critiques offers at least one clue as to why the Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to champion SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] as a valuable recession antidote: as the nation’s first African-American president, Obama is vulnerable to racist innuendo, which his opponents are only too happy to exploit.

She offers no basis whatsoever for this accusation. I’m still at a loss for what makes her write it — but I’m not at a loss as to how it affects the conversation. The “racist!” accusation is invariably invoked as a conversation-stopper. It’s intended to settle a debate without having to attend to the pesky matter of actually debating.

It’s unhelpful enough that opponents and proponents of reform alike seem to be able to do no better than to cite the most extreme examples of need and the most extreme examples of fraud. Such selective story-telling, even as it helps to humanize policy issues, also undermines liberals’ and conservatives’ faith in each other. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, I have to think the vast majority of Americans don’t want hard-up individuals and families to starve. Maybe we disagree about what the most effective way to help those folks is — for some, private charity trumps government programs, both in principle and in efficiency — but we don’t say societal obligations or the oft-cited “social safety net” are obsolete ideas.

But crying “racism” is far different than selective reporting. In Ratner’s case, when it’s supported with zero evidence, it’s sheerly an intimidation tactic. Furthermore, it cheapens the meaning of the term, obscuring our ability to detect true racism when it appears. It’s appalling and disappointing.

Honestly, I was tempted to be flippant with this story because I’m so very tired of this unfounded accusation, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The issues are all too serious to take lightly. Would that Ms. Ratner would feel the same way.

P.S. For another look at this, don’t miss Wynton Hall’s take at BigGovernment.com.