Welfare

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.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Welfare

  1. Tucker Samuelsen

    Worth mentioning also that states have almost all passed balanced budget amendments to their Constitutions, meaning that they have to cut back on funding like this during recessions, when their citizens need it the most.

    Reply
  2. Bill

    Fascinating, isn’t it?

    We have collectively decided what our values are as a country. Caring for the poor, the infirm, and the elderly are at the top of the list. It used to be that people could see themselves in these situations, that they were not far away from being poor, infirm, or (eventually) elderly. And we decided that as a society it was a good idea to care for these folks.

    It seems to me that we’ve changed our focus from the poor to the rich. The middle class is not far away from breaking into the ranks of the wealthy, and having to share means that this goal is less likely to happen. In short, people covet what they don’t even have yet. Which is irrational, if pervasive.

    I like to look at statistics and see what is not being said. For example, the video noted that 41% of those on food stamps live with someone who has a job. Which makes me wonder what kind of a job one could have that still enables food stamp qualification. But I also look at the statistic from the other point of view – that 59% of food stamps are going to places where no one has a job. The same could be said of the federal budget – the article pointed out that it is 2% of the federal budget that is going to food stamps. But it does not say that 98% of the federal budget goes to other things (about equal parts military, medicare/medicaid, social security, “discretionary” – which means federal programs and federal employee’s salaries, and other mandatory and interest payments). Earlier you’d posted an interesting note regarding what it would take to balance the budget immediately. The idea is appealing, but the reality is that we all collectively value the things our government brings us. We value these things and we have agreed to pay for them. Feeding poor people is important. Caring for the elderly is important. If that’s really the case, we need to do what is necessary to meet our moral obligations.

    I guess I don’t understand where the disconnect is. But I think it’s particularly confusing on the part of the so-called Christian right. Because everything I’ve read from the Savior’s teachings on this seems to belie the positions these folks are espousing.

    And, I suppose, this is why I am a liberal Mormon. 😉

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  3. Troy Williams

    Thank you Eric! Brilliant analysis. Our country needs a little more King Benjamin and a lot less Ayn Rand. Charity is great, but it’s woefully inadequate to tackle the tremendous need. I hope that your wisdom begins to permeate the thinking of more Latter-day Saints.

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