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?
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.
The Brookings Institution in 2005 developed a new way to look at food stamps. Its report, "Leaving Money (and Food) on the Table," spoke of "unclaimed benefits" when eligible individuals did not sign up for food stamps. Brookings argued, "State and local leaders need to now get serious about boosting participation in the food stamp program." Later that year and in 2007, other activists and think tankers, such as the Food Research and Action Center and the National Priorities Project, offered similar messages.
The message soon spread around the country. In Vermont, the Burlington Free Press opined, "The food stamp benefit is not a welfare program; it's an entitlement program. Those who qualify are entitled to receive these government benefits." In California, Food for People leader Deborah Waxman told the Eureka Times-Standard, "This is something you've paid into just like Social Security or Medicare."
Since wealth is no barrier to receiving Social Security payments, states such as New York and Ohio waived limits on the amount of savings an income-eligible person can have and still receive stamp benefits. States did away with "stamps" for food and issued cards that look just like credit or debit cards. Poverty advocates-food bank employees in San Antonio and San Diego, AmeriCorps volunteers in New Jersey, students at California State University and other institutions-raced to sign up food stamp users, interpreting guidelines as broadly as possible.
Other organizations jumped in: H&R Block gave tax preparation clients food stamp applications and instructions on filing them. The New York City Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization for 400 member unions, made a big enrollment push. A Business Wire article last year described how "the Greater Chicago Food Depository equipped food stamp outreach coordinators with Sprint 4G-powered laptops. They crisscrossed Cook County, going from food pantries to city agencies to churches to community centers to ... speed up the sign-up process."
A journalistic reversal from the late 1990s also aided the food stamp surge. From 1996 to 2001 stories often stated that states with the lowest percentages of people on welfare were winning the competition to help people become independent. Recently, newspapers have turned that thinking upside down by viewing the greatest dependency-creators as the winners. For example, a decade ago the Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.) might have headlined one story, "New Jersey has 6th-best independence rate." Now it was, "New Jersey has 6th-worst participation rate."
Similarly, the Miami Herald reported, "Florida ranked 12th worst in the United States, with 43 percent of the state's low-income residents receiving food stamps." An alternative report could have been, "Florida ranked 12th best in the United States, with 57 percent of the state's low-income residents working to put food on the table instead of becoming dependent on government." The 1990s message-Don't get onto welfare. Don't be dependent on government-has flipped to Welfare is your right, and if you have qualms, don't think of food stamps as welfare. Think of them as an entitlement like Social Security.
Despite such pressure and financial logic, opposition to increasing dependency has popped up in places. In 2006, even before the latest surge began, a former Maine state employee, Shannon Leary, wrote in the Kennebec Journal, "The state should not take more people accepting benefits as a victory. ... During a meeting of public assistance supervisors and administrators, the person running the meeting told us that 83 percent of those who met the eligibility criteria for food stamps were receiving the benefit. We were told that was good but the goal was to have 100 percent receiving the benefit. It struck me as odd then, and still does today. Should we not be striving for less usage of benefits?"
Leary continued, "As a self-employed adult with a young family several years ago, I found myself eligible for food stamps. But I had the same determination as my parents not to use them. ... The state should not be in the business of pushing so hard to get people to take public assistance. ... We need to promote a culture that gives people the ability to be independent rather than maintain a culture where benefits are easily attainable."
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2006 that the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services was ordering officials in two counties that "feature the state's largest Amish populations to lift dismal food-stamp participation rates." County official Tim Taylor said, "No matter how much we do, the Amish won't sign up," and Amish farmer Levi Miller said his poor neighbors would just say no: "We believe that we are our brother's keeper." After discussing putting up a billboard within an Amish enclave to promote food stamp use, state and county officials agreed that the attempt would be fruitless.
The Obama administration has tried to speed up new food stamp enrollment. On Nov. 20, 2009, just before Thanksgiving, the Department of Agriculture sent a letter to state administrators complaining that some of them were running their food stamp programs in a way that was "problematic and resulted in a more complex and difficult enrollment process." That year in southern Ohio, Warren County commissioners threatened to pull out of SNAP because new rules made a family with more than $400,000 in assets and savings eligible. Contacted this fall, Commissioner Dave Young recalled, "They were literally driving up in Mercedes [to collect SNAP cards]. I think there's something inherently wrong with that."
That is unusual but possible, since Ohio applicants for food stamps may own their own homes and surrounding land, motor vehicles, furniture, jewelry, and pension funds, with no limits to their value. Young said his county did not pull out of SNAP, yet "Nothing changed." Administrators have made growing the welfare rolls a priority: Young says he's been told that if food stamp applications were checked, "the program would slow to a standstill." Young says concerning his protest, "We were not trying to be inhumane. Everybody needs a helping hand occasionally. It shouldn't be a way of life. It should be a last resort."
Food stamp proponents have tried to break the will of those among the elderly who, following American traditions of independence, are reluctant to sign up (see next page). The Boston Globe reported, "Advocates for the elderly are pushing hard to get area senior citizens in need of assistance to apply for the federal food stamp program, but pride and embarrassment stand in the way." The Globe quoted officials in Newton, one of Boston's affluent and liberal suburbs, emphasizing that SNAP is "like Social Security or Medicare-something that seniors have paid taxes into and have earned the benefits in return. ... We educate seniors that this is a program they are entitled to."
Some conservatives have attacked food stamps because of the cost: $68 billion this year. That is a lot of money in a battered economy, but a greater problem is the change in consciousness, with welfare changing from temporary assistance for the desperate to a normal part of life. In 1868 the key sentence of a popular song was, "He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze." Today officials croon, Flop into the safety net. You're entitled to it.
Living on a food stamps budget is certainly not steaks and salmon. The maximum benefit for a family of four is about $8 per meal, and the average is about $6 per meal. Some could use more than they get, but the House of Representatives wants to cut SNAP expenses as part of a plan to reduce deficits. If political leaders and media continue the push to add millions more to the rolls, they are likely to diminish the resources available for the truly needy, create cynicism about the program as a whole, and accustom millions more to a life of unnecessary dependency.
New Orleans food bank director Briane Greene told the Times-Picayune: "Food stamps are the first line of defense against hunger. Food banks are the last line of defense." That has it backwards. Americans generally and the poor specifically would be far better off if church and community programs came first and federal programs were the last resort.
The Department of Agriculture in recent years has announced that every $5 billion spent on food stamps generates $9 billion in economic activity-which means that we purportedly help others by going on welfare. The Eureka Times-Standard reported that "the local economy" could be saved, "one food stamp at a time."
Newspapers uncritically accepted that figure, which originated with a 2002 study, "Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures Across the U.S. Economy." But are food stamps truly an economic stimulus? A closer look at that report shows that they are only if Washington borrows the money and increases our gargantuan federal deficit. Otherwise, they hurt the economy and increase unemployment.
Department of Agriculture publicists have ignored some crucial findings in their own study. First, authors Kenneth Hanson and Elise Golan concluded that borrowing by the U.S. government to expand food stamps would "allow recipients to shift cash income previously spent on food to nonfood spending, recipient households increased their spending on nonfood items by $3.7 billion."
In other words, three-fourths of food stamps made no difference in the quantity or quality of food that families had: Instead, parents would save money on food and use that money to buy other things.
Second, Hanson and Golan concluded, "If the same recession-driven increase in [food stamp] benefits is financed through increased taxes or other budget-neutral means, the stimulus effect of the increase in expenditures is dampened or even reversed." In their simulation, "Low-income households increased spending on non-food goods, but mid- and high-income households reduced spending by even more."
More money for government, but less overall household income and spending, led to less economic activity. In this scenario household income fell by $1 billion and 14,400 jobs were lost. So much for the food stamp stimulus.