As readers of this blog with an interest in economics will know, the Republican-controlled House recently passed a bill slashing funds for the food-stamp program by $40 billion over the next ten years. The reasons given by conservatives included “costs out of control” and an apparent feeling that by increasing free food, the government is subsidizing the working poor to, uh, work less. This fits neatly into the meme that people really don’t want to work because most of them are lazy and care little about the dignity of work.
“This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, who led efforts to split the food stamps program from the overall farm bill. “In the real world, we measure success by results.”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that lack of success is some kind of sin. I know because I too used to think that way. There are many who fail, but I’m convinced they do so more from all of life’s many vicissitudes than from laziness. The dignity of honest work is a powerful meme in human affairs. The great Studs Turkel, a genius at interviewing, once published a terrific book on how working people actually think. It was called Working.
I note that the current government definition of “poverty”, for a family of four, is an annual income of $23,550, and that started me wondering. Despite my interest in economics the past few years I realized that I didn’t know how that was derived, and even more, I wondered why the definition itself isn’t currently controversial, given the fear and revulsion being expressed by GOP leaders about the 47%. The reason, apparently, is that the basis of the definition hasn’t changed since economist Molly Orshansky proposed it 48 years ago! The Department of Agriculture had previously determined statistically that families of three or more spent about a third of their after-tax income on food, so Orshansky simply calculated the cheapest cost of reasonably nutritious but minimally-expensive food for different family sizes and multiplied by three. Since that time, the only change has been in the indexed cost of food.
There are plenty of “horror” stories floating around about abuse of the food stamp program. They fit well with others like the welfare-queen story told by president Reagan and others. When you define standards to fit everyone, you’re going to get some of that. People’s circumstances vary all over the map, from the student living in his grandmother’s basement to the immigrant trying to raise a family by working in fast food. A recent pod-cast on NPR’s Planet Money gives a good overview of controversy and explores why a lot of the variation actually makes sense. Life, like economics, is complicated and to force human beings into one mold, say by handing out apples and mittens, one size fits all, would be not just humiliating but inefficient. But if anyone wants to rebut that, I hope that they will first have listened to the 12-minute Planet Money pod-cast first. Turns out, many people on food stamps aren’t lazy slugs at all and I have no doubt that the program prevented, and is preventing, the Great Recession from being a lot more like the Great Depression. But, with incomes soaring for the upper-income brackets, markets setting new highs and the budget deficit steadily falling, the House Republicans apparently think America needs to penalize misfortune with loss of dignity. Given the GOP’s penchant for preaching religious values, I would ask them, what would Jesus say?
- These Republicans Who Voted To Cut Food Stamps Personally Received Large Farm Subsidies (buzzfeed.com)
- The food stamps program (marginalrevolution.com)
- Republican congressman tells constituent asking about food stamp cuts: ‘Let him not eat’ (rawstory.com)
- I Am Not a Food Stamp Abuser (littleutopiamag.com)