Monday, February 22, 2010

Reflecting on food stamp statistics

The number of food stamp recipients has climbed by about 10 million over the past two years, resulting in a program that now feeds 1 in 8 Americans and nearly 1 in 4 children. (“Food Stamp Usage Across the Country,” New York Times, February 11, 2010)

Those statistics should give people who contend that hard work is sufficient to overcome adversity in the United States, the land of opportunity, considerable cause to reevaluate their position. If hard work were sufficient to assure economic sufficiency, surely fewer people would need to rely on food stamps.

For me, those statistics are a siren call that underscores the moral problem with the growing disparity between the affluent and the poor in the United States. I believe that capitalism offers incentives to people that simply sharing according to needs fails to accommodate. The early socialistic experiment recorded in the book of Acts in which Christians pooled all of their assets and drew upon the common treasury according to need failed, as have several attempted repeats in the last two centuries. However, unregulated capitalism tends toward monopoly power in which the rich progressively increase their exploitation of the less rich and the poor. This process culminated in periods of devastating economic hardship following the eras of the robber barons in the nineteenth century, stock speculators in the first half of the twentieth century, and most recently financial speculators.

A Christian economic system incorporates not only economic incentives to encourage individual initiative and responsibility but also sufficient regulation to keep the wealth and income differences between the rich and poor within reasonable bounds. One interesting suggestion is that no employee of a corporation earns more than one hundred times the earnings of the lowest paid employee.

Simply providing a social safety net, of which food stamps constitute one element, is inadequate. In the short-run, dependence on a social safety net can ease difficult transitions. Long-term dependence on a social safe net tends to make people comfortable receiving public assistance and thereby undermines their self-esteem and commitment to self-sufficiency. In other words, the longer term consequence of too wide a disparity between the rich and the poor is social disintegration of the type seen in some third world countries in which elites siphon off the wealth, completely disenfranchising and alienating the have-nots.


Ted said...

I can understand the rise of food stamps over the last few years. I would like to see a breakout of those receiving food stamps. I'm interested in how long they have been on food stamps and other forms of government support,their work record, criminal record, education level to include (dropouts, high school, technical school, and college), and finally married, divorced and single parents. It is easy to give numbers but a breakout of the different reasons is most likely left out unless there is a good reason or benefit. Also, numbers get the compassionate juices stirring even though we don't take into account the size of our population.
Until we can make it more advantageous for business to be done in the US, more companies will move out to foreign lands, cheap labor, lower taxes, better compensation for managers, fewer rules, and greedy unions.
So are the churches trying to help these people or just complaining. Why do we hate wealth? If we make the tough decisions, bring manufacturing back to the US, force people to be responsible for their actions, then we might make a change in the economic structure. It is okay being rich as there will always be a segment of the poor. If you make your society of middle class, you import the poor. We need to just be fair in the process of getting rich.
The situation will only get worse until we as a people make hard and tough decisions. I don't think we will get there until it may be too late.

George Clifford said...

You raise an excellent question about the duration of the time people stay on food stamps. I've not seen statistics on that. I also wonder about the frequency with which people move on and off food stamps. Striking the right balance between a society that cares for all and that encourages individual initiative is a real challenge.

Anonymous said...

But really, how much does it matter of some people are abusing the system? A majority of those receiving these benefits deserve them.

When over half of the federal tax collections go to the DoD, to build yet another billion dollar warplane, giving a couple grand a year to a high school dropout to not starve does not compare. At all.

George Clifford said...

For the sake of accuracy, only about 1/7 of the federal budget goes to the Department of Defense (approximately $570 billion of 3.5 trillion in 2010).

Stephen said...

Pastor Clifford: I fully agree with your article with the following exception. I believe that the statistics will reveal that the average food stamp recipient gets $133/month - not much compared to the bloat the government spends on non-essential things. Christ, as you correctly pointed out believed in the quality of life and always encouraged his followers to help feed, clothe and shelter the needy. That a few may cheat is no excuse to deprive those in need of the benefit of assistance. That a mid level corporate executive whose 401(k) was wiped out and cannot get re-employed without massive retraining stays on food stamp assistance for what Ted and others like him believe to be an inordinate amount of time is truly Un-Christian. Perhaps we should bring back the WPA from the 1930's, so a recipient of aid gives back something of value to society, labor, literature, music or perhaps only ethical musings that can be of assistance to another. I would enjoy corresponding with you by email, if you are so inclined.

George Clifford said...

Stephen, I’m guessing that among the total number of people on food stamps there are relatively few unemployed mid-level executives. Unfortunately, the disparity between the haves and have-nots is growing in this country. $133 per month in food stamps is certainly not going to diminish that gap significantly. Your suggestion of having people work for the assistance they receive has merits but is fraught with practical difficulties. Working for the aid received helps to avoid unhealthy feelings of dependence and lack of self-worth. The difficulties with administering a work program include allowing people the time needed for other essentials (childcare, healthcare, job hunting, etc.), questions about whether one assigns people on the basis of education and skills or treat everyone equally, administrative costs, etc. Your suggestion represents a good example of why allowing states to experiment (smaller scale, more concurrent experimentation) rather than imposing strict compliance with federal programs makes sense.

Jerry99 said...

About 6 months ago there was a good piece done on San Francisco NBC Evening News. It was the day food stamps are distributed and showed a group of asian markets downtown. The food stamp recipients traded their monthly food stamp allocation for 50% cash and went across the street and bought drugs with the money. There were many food stamp recipients and many drug dealers. When the reporter asked the merchant how and why he did it, he said it was good for him and good for the food stamp person.
Congress knows that a large percentage of the food stamp program is used to buy drugs and provides 2-3 meals per day at the school lunch program to provide food for children while subsidizing the drug addicts.
Get rid of food stamps, let Second Harvest Food Bank or Salvation Army run the program and deliver groceries to each recipient each week. Stop subsidizing the drug addicts and dealers. Just another fraud ridden government program that needs to be changed or stopped.

George Clifford said...

Obviously, some food stamp program participants abuse the program. From the data that I presented in my original post, food stamps do make a significant difference for some families. Even accepting your analysis at face value, eliminating food stamps and relying on school meal programs to feed children would leave children hungry on the weekends and when school is not in session. Criticizing is easy; suggesting a practical way to improve the program is more difficult.