Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Food stamp use increases: who should the government be working for?

The New York Times article “Food stamp use soars across US, and stigma fades” by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff (November 29, 2009) details not only the dramatic increase in the number of people on food stamps across the country, but the fact that many people who would never have thought of themselves as candidates for “welfare” now (sometimes ruefully) avail themselves of this “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” (SNAP). In two telling county-by-county maps we are shown, first, which counties have had the greatest increase in recipients of “nutritional assistance” (as food stamps are now called), and then which have the greatest percent of recipients.

The map showing percent increase, calls our attention to the West, Florida, and the North Central States, with Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin and Florida all darkly colored. As shown on the second map, these are mostly states that previously had relatively low percents of people on food stamps, and are even are now just catching up; they are still below the areas with the heaviest proportions – the Texas-Mexico border; the Appalachian strip through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri; the Mississippi Delta; anywhere there is an Indian reservation. The South as a whole looks bad, but always has, because of the combination of low union penetration resulting in low wages, many people employed in marginal agriculture, and terrible social services. The interactive map feature is “cool” – you can hover over any county in the US and find out what percent of its population is on food stamps, and what the change (almost always “increase”) has been. The result is that “There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps…”, and do, nationally, one in four children.

While there are a number of smaller counties that have almost half (49%) of their population on food stamps, the two with the highest percents among counties with over a half-million people are Bronx County, NY, and Hidalgo County, TX, tied at 29%. Ironically, the last time Hidalgo County (county seat=McAllen) hit the national news it was when it was revealed, in Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, the “Cost Conundrum” (discussed in my post ‘Medicare Costs: ‘All Politics are Local’” on June 11, 2009), that it was the region that had the highest Medicare cost per person in the country.

This is pretty sad. It is sad that so many people in this country have to swallow their pride and take food stamps. “’It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people,’” says SNAP’s director. “The program’s growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a sign of laziness,” the Times tells us. But, of course, it is not “laziness” when it is you.

It is hard to think of this without thinking of the multi-billion dollar bailouts given to the bankers and financiers so that they could continue to give themselves huge bonuses. While it may be true that these companies were too big to fail, there is no reason that they had to use our tax money to pay their employees, each of whom is only a person, just like the people who are increasingly in need of food stamps. We are told that some statistics, such as that the rate of job losses are slowing, indicate that “we” as a country may be on our way out of the recession, but that still means that there are fewer people working each month than there were the month before; I don’t think such statistics mean as much to the more of “we” who are out of work each month as the statistics showing the increase in folks on food stamps. I don’t think that it makes the six people looking for each available job feel much better.

I am still marveling at the juxtaposition of the food stamp story with an advertisement in the program for a concern I recently went to. Under the photo of a sultry and glamorous beauty in a gown leaning against an elegant bar with a glass in one hand, the text says: “The glass is half full…of champagne. The more than 97 percent of KC consumers who spend $27,000 , or more, per month on personal luxuries subscribe to one necessity every month – KC Magazine.” I am sorry that it is not online and I can’t reproduce it. I had to read that several times to be sure I hadn’t read it wrong – it is, after all, a tortured sentence. Yes, $27,000. A month. That’s a lot of money. Over half the average annual household income in our region. But they’re not talking about income. They’re talking about luxuries. $27,000 a month on luxuries. $324,000 a year. Or more. In Kansas City, not even New York or LA. I am amazed at the audacity of it.

Paul Krugman’s recent column (“The Jobs Imperative”) calls for a new Works Progress Administration in which the government would directly create jobs. I don’t think this is going to happen because the Obama administration is not bold enough, and has never shown such boldness. It completely kowtowed to the financial sector, and is afraid to take on the right-wing bloviators in Congress who say they represent the American people when in fact all they want to do is to further screw the American people. Most of all it won’t happen because the Congress is owned by wealthy contributors, and doesn’t really work for the American people. It is a very sad situation, but at least we can be confident that few Congressmen, even when they retire, will require food stamps.

We as Americans seem, on so many fronts, to be unable to put ourselves in the position of others, even as we move toward that position. This is true in the area of reproductive rights, where younger women do not realize that if they don’t fight for it now, abortion could not be available when they need it (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, In Support of Abortion, It’s Personal vs. Political, New York Times November 29, 2009). It is true when we fail to realize that without a universal health insurance program, our access to health care can disappear with our jobs. It is also, clearly, true with regard to our basic human needs, such as food. In the Times story, the formerly-employed food stamp recipients of southeastern Ohio say “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now,” and “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy, but it helps me know I can feed my kids.” So would “those people”. Maybe we need to start thinking about how what happens to some of us can happen to us all.

German Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Most of us would agree with the woman in the Times article who said “I like to have a nice decent meal for dinner.” It’s not too much to ask that this be the goal of our national policies, and let the financiers and those people who are spending $27,000 a month – or more! – on “personal luxuries fend for themselves.

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