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Attacking the Hungry

Recent news that almost 50 million Americans — including about 17 million children — experienced “food insecurity” during 2008 spawned some coverage about how the recession was affecting the poor, and about how food banks were being overwhelmed.

Many have turned to governmental assistance. According to this in-depth report in yesterday’s NY Times, enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) has also surged during this recession. The story does carry an unpleasant scent of trying to present a more sympathetic (read: whiter) picture of the “average” recipient of benefits, but its central points are unexceptionable. Taken with the earlier stories on food insecurity, the overall situation is clear: We have a deep and growing poverty problem, one that’s now compromising the nutritional  health of tens of millions of our fellow citizens.

These two in-depth stories told on Radio Times (a Philly-based NPR show) present vivid illustrations of the challenges many parents face under these circumstances, even when they qualify for SNAP.1 The word Supplemental is key here: Average benefits per person, per month, come to  about $130 — far short of what’s needed to buy enough food. So parents forego meals in order for their kids to eat. And occasionally the kids themselves go to bed hungry.

None of this appears to have made any impression on Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. His comments must have been made while he was twirling his mustache and cackling. Here’s an excerpt from the Times article:

“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said…  Rector…, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.

It’s sometimes too easy to cup our hands over our mouths in horror; often comments like this contain some truth that should be confronted. But these remarks, at this time, really are appalling. First, this program is very different from cash welfare. The benefits are electronically transferred, and can only be used for purchases of certain qualified food items, at listed retailers. This isn’t a blank “welfare” check that can be used as the beneficiary sees fit, with no accountability.

Second, work requirements? With about one in six — 1 in 6! — workers either officially unemployed,underemployed, or too chronically out of work to “count,” where does Rector think these jobs are coming from? Maybe the Heritage Foundation can help by taking on a few more people. They shouldn’t have to pay much for work of this caliber.

And on marriage: Once again, marriage promotion is being touted as an answer for a complex problem. Why tie the benefits to marriage in the first place?  This program should be based on need, and marital status (vel non) is a poor proxy for need.

According to the government’s FAQ site on SNAP, about half of all recipients were children during the most recent fiscal year for which data were available. Does Rector really have no one else to go after?

  1. From link, search for archive date: 11/23/09.
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  1. October 23rd, 2010 at 09:14 | #1

    the homeless people in our area would always use food stamps to satisfy their hunger”-‘

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