Wednesday, September 16, 2009


(Good Lord, it's another political post. I never do that. But I can't seem to get this out of my head.)

I saw, on a random message board the other day, a post from someone who was peeved because she saw a woman use food stamps to purchase soda. And she thought, basically, "why are my tax dollars buying junk food for this woman?" She wasn't opposed to the concept of food stamps or anything, but was fairly miffed that the food stamps were being used for something unhealthy.

And I had a lot of thoughts about this, most of which could be summed up as "STFU."

Let's start with the basics -- which are that it's probably embarassing enough for this woman to be using food stamps, she doesn't need you judging the food in her shopping cart. And what do you know of her life, anyway, to be making these snap judgments? Maybe she's bribing her kid to do his homework with soda. Maybe her kid is having some friends over and she wants to supply something to drink other than tap water. (Or should the kid be humiliated for parental poverty, too?)

And where does it end, really? OK, fine, she shouldn't use food stamps for soda. What about breakfast cereals? Are Fruit Loops out? Only whole grain things acceptable? Oh, and I assume she should be buying the generic stuff, rather than the brand name. I mean, if she's spending our tax dollars for her food, we really shouldn't have her wasting it on name brands, now, should we?

Any restrictions would be largely impossible to enforce anyway. I mean, if you could only use food stamps for plain wrap healthy foods, do you know what would happen? (I do.) There would be a huge secondary market for food stamps. Hell, I saw this phenomenon in practice when I was in Junior High school. At that time, a school lunch cost, oh, I think it was 85 cents -- or, if you got assistance, it would cost a lunch ticket. Now, I wasn't on assistance, so I paid my 85 cents for the nice, (somewhat) healthy hot lunch. And sometimes, I'd forget my lunch money. And I knew that if I scraped together 50 cents (the standard going rate), I could buy a lunch ticket off one of the kids on assistance. (I even knew the particular lunch table to go to in order to find the kids who were selling.) I'd get my hot lunch for 50 cents; and the seller would get 50 cents which they would inevitably use to buy two candy bars at the student store. It seemed win-win at the time, although something about it seemed not-quite-right enough to me that I'd only do it when I forgot my lunch money -- as opposed to some other kids who bought a cheap lunch ticket every day. Point is: if you tell people they can't use food stamps for the stuff they want to buy, they'll sell those food stamps at a cut rate to someone who wants to buy food-stamp-approved products, and use the cash to buy what they want to buy. Better, I think, to just let them use food stamps for a somewhat broader array of food -- because, y'know, if the kids on assistance could've used their lunch tickets for 85 cents worth of whatever food they could get, they never would have sold them to me for 50 cents -- and the kids who could afford it would have been forced to pay the full 85 cents for our lunches.

But the real point -- besides not knowing the full story and restrictions being unenforceable -- the real point is just this... and I don't think I fully grasped it until Law School. Here's the thing about welfare, food stamps, and other government assistance programs. You could make applying for aid as difficult and humiliating as you want (and we do -- did you know they write the aid application forms to something like an 11th grade reading level?); you could add every sort of requirement that you want (limit the time on assistance, require them to look for jobs); but whatever you do, at some point, you're going to find someone who just isn't moved. They're not humiliated into getting off aid; they refuse to look for work; and that's just it.

And you have to ask yourself: Self, am I going to let this person starve to death because they won't follow our rules? Or is there a basic level of assistance that we are going to supply to even the jerkiest of aid recipients so we don't have to deal with the shame of people starving to death in our streets? Because, ultimately, that's what it's going to come down to -- someone who refuses to play along with our welfare rules, and just wants to take advantage of the system forever. They're using us for basic necessities, and we just have to figure out, for ourselves, if we're going to let them do it, or let them, and their children, die.

Look, I'm not a fan of welfare fraud, and I'm certainly not happy with the idea of us indefinitely supporting someone who is capable of working and just doesn't want to. But I know that, for the great bulk of people on aid, they don't want to be there, and they're trying to pull themselves out of poverty. And I know that, for the great bulk of people on aid, it is humiliating, doesn't maintain them at a level of living they'd characterize as "comfortable," and is not at all something they're proud of. And as for the rest of them, I've come to the conclusion that I'd rather keep them alive at the aforementioned uncomfortable way of life than just let them die. It isn't for them; it's for me.

1 comment:

Jim Wright said...

Excellent post, and one I wish I'd written.