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Food stamps surge

The dramatic rise in recipients of U.S. supplemental nutrition assistance may be more about selling the program than feeding the needy

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

Until now, most children in the United States on Thanksgiving could look forward to a food-laden table that would visually represent the bounty of God brought to them by the hard work of parents. That is no longer the case.

A thoughtful study by Washington University professor Mark Rank projects that half of U.S. children are or will be in a household that uses food stamps at some point during their childhood. The study, "Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood," published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, also forecast that more than 90 percent of children with single parents will spend time in a household receiving food stamps.

Those are projections, but the facts themselves are ominous. Between 2002 and 2011 the number of Americans in the food stamp program-recently re-named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP-rose from 18 million to 47 million, Given the rise in unemployment from 6 percent to 9 percent during those years, we could expect some change in the number of people using food stamps-but more than two-and-a-half times as many?

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Two Houston residents, Jean Solis and Scott Wesley, exemplify the uses and abuses of food stamps. Seven years ago Jean Solis, then 48 with a 10-year-old daughter, lived in a battered women's shelter. Eventually she entered a training course at The WorkFaith Connection, a Christian program in Houston that prepares motivated people to get jobs and persevere in them (see "Punching paper walls"). Four years ago the only job she found right away was in a distant part of the city: With no car, it took three hours by bus each way to get there and back. She worked four hours per day.

That was when Solis reluctantly joined the millions on welfare. She had grown up believing that dependence on government was a sign of failure, but "I needed food stamps to feed my daughter." She worried about her daughter's perceptions: "What are you teaching your children when you don't stand up for yourself?" When Solis finally garnered a full-time position, she kissed food stamps goodbye: "I stopped on April 1, 2008. That was a good day for me."

For Solis, welfare worked the way it is supposed to work: temporary help that saves children from destitution and gives a work-seeking parent time to get on her feet.

The experience of Scott Wesley was different. At age 20, while heavily using cocaine and alcohol, he impregnated his girlfriend, and over the subsequent 12 years they had four children and lived off numerous welfare programs, including food stamps. He felt no pressure to work: "I knew the rent would be paid and the children wouldn't go hungry."

Wesley and his girlfriend never married, in part because that would have reduced their welfare income. He stole goods that they wanted and traded food stamps for drugs, a common tendency: "When the police raided drug dealers' houses they'd find caches of food stamps." Later Wesley started manufacturing and selling meth. He eventually went to prison, falling upwards because God changed his thinking there. When Wesley came out three years later he found a job and has been employed for four years now. He criticizes use of food stamps by those capable of working: "They allow you to be irresponsible."

It's hard to know how many of the 46 million Americans now enrolled in SNAP are, like Solis, using food stamps for temporary help, and how many like Wesley are using them as an aid to irresponsibility. This is not an argument against SNAP's existence, since those working hard to find full-time jobs-and unable to do so since the 2008 recession-need help, and often more help than they currently receive. But the drive to enroll more and more people in SNAP is part of an ideological campaign that has gone unreported.

The marketing of food stamps includes four elements:

1. Advocates arguing that food stamps should be seen as equivalent to Social Security, something that everyone in a particular demographic receives regardless of need.

2. Advocates arguing that those who turn down food stamps hurt their local economies. Because of perverse incentives, they are right.

3. States competing to increase the number of residents on food stamps, with journalists lauding the "winners."

4. SNAP advocates working to break down resistance from the elderly and other resistant populations, including the Amish.

Those four elements add up to trouble in two ways. First, the easy availability of governmental funds sucks in some and creates a dependent attitude with long-range detriment to them and their children. Second, given budget pressures, we are likely to end up with watery soup, with some desperately needy families not getting enough to provide good nutrition to children.

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