More than one in seven Americans uses food stamps – unless one lives in Mississippi (and four other states and the District of Columbia), where more than one in five people rely on food stamps. (Phil Izzo, “More Than 1 in 7 Use Food Stamps in U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2012/03/02/more-than-1-in-7-use-food-stamps-in-u-s/?blog_id=8&post_id=15802)
Those statistics are alarming. Are U.S. residents really so poor that they cannot afford to feed themselves without government assistance? Other reports that I read indicate widespread malnutrition, much of it the result of people making unwise choices about what they eat. Still other reports indicate that families do indeed struggle to feed themselves, pay the rent, pay for necessary healthcare, and pay other bills.
In my twenties, my wife and I lived for several years on an income that was less than half of the official poverty level. We survived without trauma, partially through good financial management and partially through luck. We had no phone, no TV, and no car. We used public transportation and bicycles. We cooked meals without using prepared foods. We ate relatively little meat and almost no sweets. We bought few clothes and made some of our own furniture. We had health insurance through the schools we attended. (We were both full time students but did not have subsidized housing or other benefits that might have pushed us above the poverty level.) We were lucky because we had no major health issues, were not victims of violent crime, etc. We knew that our poverty would be short-lived. Post-graduation, we expected our incomes to rise with employment. We did not apply for any form of government assistance because we felt an obligation to be self-sufficient as much as we could. In retrospect, the years were hard but formative and without regret. The availability of government assistance provided assurance that if all else failed, we would not starve.
I wonder to what extent people accept government assistance because they want a standard of living they cannot afford rather than accept the assistance only when unable to survive on their own. Much of what Americans take for granted – autos and TVs, for example – are really luxuries, not necessities.
Writing government policy, premised on one size fits all, is challenging (I’ve had to do it when in the Navy). Even so, I suspect that government assistance is perhaps too readily available, not encouraging (forcing?) sufficient self-reliance. When 1 in 7 qualifies for food stamps, something is clearly wrong.
However, that is not the whole story. When 1 in 7 people accept government assistance, then that also suggests self-reliance and hope are waning, warning signs that democracy is in trouble. Democracy does not require financial equality. However, democracy does require most people being able to participate in the political process as relative equals. That is no longer the case in the United States. I think this is part of the unfocused and sometimes misdirected anger of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movement.
Pervasive government assistance – whether food stamps, other anti-poverty programs, or middle-class tax credits – bear a striking resemblance to the subsidized grain programs that Rome’s pre-imperial elite used to pacify the city’s poor. That story had a bad ending: empire replaced democracy.
Is the United States moving in a similar direction?
Avoiding that fate requires reintegrating the wealthy and poor into the social fabric. For the poor, that means building self-reliance and hope for a better life in which present sacrifices are realistic steps to a better future. For the wealthy, that means more commitment to society, i.e., higher tax rates and more direct involvement (serving in the military rather than only as political leaders).
As a Christian, I am committed to political self-determination (i.e., democracy), self-reliance (this expresses human dignity), and healthy interdependence (this includes both a social safety net and recognizing that no person is an island). Unlike the partisan voices that characterize so much of contemporary political and religious discourse, Christianity insists on balancing all three of those values.