In my last post here, I talked about politics, and made my case for Mormon liberalism. I talked about the obligation government has to care for the poor and needy. I cited King Benjamin. The response was generally positive, but some of my conservative friends disagreed.
Here’s the counter-argument: the federal government is inefficient, ineffective and mismanaged. Providing for the poor is something government does badly. Private charity is more effective than government administered charity, in part because it’s one-on-one, able to assess individual needs and respond to them, unencumbered by a massive federal bureaucracy. Government spending is too high anyway; cuts have to be made, government has proven itself a poor steward of our national resources. And it’s coercive to take money from individuals via taxation, and hardly charitable to just hand it over to freeloaders, worthless bums, cheats, welfare moms. Besides local government is always better than national government–it’s closer to, and therefore more responsive to the people.
Let me deal with each of these questions in turn. Let me start with a single program, and a single number. Food stamps. $80 billion. That’s the current federal budget for food stamps, more or less.
That’s a lot of money. Eighty billion dollars–that’s an exceptionally large sum of money. It’s about one fiftieth of the total federal budget; a small enough slice, but a substantial total nonetheless. The Deseret News on-line version posted this cute little video about food stamps–I didn’t see much factually wrong with it. 41% of food stamp recipients live with someone who has a job. More than half are either children, or elderly. Right now, around 48 million Americans are on food stamps. It was 26 million in 2007. That includes over 5,000 active duty military personnel. Some soldiers with families qualify for food stamps.
The money these people receive from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) is not particularly generous. For families, it averages around $275 a month. Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker (now New Jersey Senator), tried to live on an equivalent amount to a food stamp allowance for a week. His food stamp allotment, as a single man, was $4.32 a day. His blog describing his SNAP week experiences makes for interesting reading–he ate a whole lot of canned beans and a whole lot of canned veggies. So, yes, on SNAP, you can survive. You won’t have a very interesting diet, though, nor a particularly healthy one. If you’re underemployed–you have a job, but it doesn’t pay very well–you can use food stamps to make up the difference between barely surviving and maybe, possibly, getting just a little ahead.
What about some of the other issues relating to food stamps? Congressman Paul Ryan, urging Congress to cut food stamp appropriations, expressed concern over a social safety net which can become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Two reputable economists, Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have been studying the effects of food stamps from the 1960s to today. Their research shows that this is not the case–that food stamps lift more families out of poverty than any other program. They also found that children in food stamp receiving homes tend to be healthier than poor children who don’t receive this assistance. And childhood health is more predictive of subsequent life success than almost any other factor. Other researchers have found that over 50% of food stamp recipients leave the program after a year due to improvements in their economic circumstances. Food stamps also have a stimulative effect on the economy. The Department of Agriculture did a study that showed that every dollar spent on foodstamps generated $1.84 in subsequent economic activity. Good old Keynesian multipliers at work.
Is there waste and fraud in the food stamp program. Sure, some. Best estimates are that about 1% of food stamp use is fraudulent. Mostly what happens is that people trade food stamps for a momentary reduction in rent. Poor people make tradeoffs–that’s how you survive.
But let’s get back to that number: $80 billion dollars. That’s an awful lot of money to spend to maintain lazy bums in lives of indolent luxury. Right now the House is considering cutting back on food stamps. Not to worry; it’ll never pass the Senate. But there’s another way to look at that $80 billion.
It’s an indicator of need. That’s how bad things are right now: we need to spend 80 billion dollars to keep poor people from starving. That’s the level of deprivation with which our fellow citizens cope.
And suddenly the ‘let private charity deal with it’ argument looks ridiculous.
Let’s put this in perspective. The Clinton Global Initiative just had their annual meeting. The CGI is surely one of the best funded international foundations dedicated to eradicating poverty. They’ve had fantastic successes. It’s supported by, among many others, Bill and Melinda Gates. Bono’s on their board. And Bill Clinton, whatever else you may think of him, is a world-class schmoozer and fundraiser. Their last big meeting was a resounding success; they made every fundraising goal. 13 billion.
Catholic Charities is exceptionally well-funded, and does incredible work. They decided to make Hurricane Sandy relief a major recent priority. And proudly announced that they were able to raise 14 million for it.
The best funded, more dedicated private charities in the world, working with the very best of intentions, can’t come close to matching the resources available to the federal government. When it comes to something as absolutely basic as feeding poor people, the federal government can feed 48 million people–say around 18 million impoverished families– at a pretty basic level: $275 a month. It costs $80 billion dollars, a tiny percentage of the federal budget.
Could we turn this over to state and local government? Not a chance in the world. States and municipalities and counties don’t have anywhere close to the resources necessary. We’ve seen it clearly since 2007-8. Since the world wide financial crisis threw our economy into recession, the single biggest drag on the economy has been public sector job losses. States and cities. Since 2009, private sector jobs have grown by 2.8 million. But unemployment remains too high, largely because of 584,000 job losses in state and local government. In fact, this may be a factor in the rapid growth of SNAP. State employees, when they get fired, at least know about SNAP, and how to apply for it.
Besides, if you apply for SNAP, your application isn’t processed by some anonymous bureacrat. It’s run by a social worker who lives in your state and community. The program is administered locally. So the whole ‘government works best at the most local level’ isn’t really relevant to the food stamp argument. SNAP is a program that has national resources behind it, but is administered locally.
So, yes, we have an absolute obligation to feed the poor. And the best way to accomplish it is to utilize the awesome power of the federal government. SNAP’s a success: food stamps do exactly what they’re supposed to do; what we’re supposed to do. Feed poor people.