There but for the grace of God . . .

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?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to There but for the grace of God . . .

  1. I think it’s also important to remember that the largest number of recipients of food stamps and public assistance are children – individuals who cannot get a job, do not have an education, and are truly at the mercy of the adults around them.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I usually wait a while before responding to commenters on my posts, Jennifer, but you raise a very interesting point about most SNAP recipients being children. The thought of children going hungry causes me to have a very un-Democrat-like sense of rage because I can think of nothing – nothing – that could change my priority from feeding my kids first, ahead of virtually any other expense I can think of, and yet I keep hearing about kids coming to school hungry. And one thing is apparent, just from observing physiques at Walmart if nothing else, parents are not themselves going hungry. I hope you and other teachers will help clarify this issue.


      • Part of the problem is that cheap food is high calorie and highly processed food. Fresh produce is expensive and goes bad quickly. It is also often not available or highly limited at corner-stores (if you have no car, this is often your ‘grocery store’ and non-subsidized food often has markups of 200%+). So a McDonald’s happy meal (and yes, McDonald’s take SNAP, Costco wholesale is legally prohibited from it) will cost a parent $4, a meal of fresh veggies and lean protein will cost them $8-10, cheatos from a vending machine $0.50, a banana $1 (again, that markup at 7-11 vs. Ralph’s). Let’s not forget that children of the working poor are also left to fend for themselves when it comes to food during the day – they don’t tend to make the most healthy choices. Students on free school lunch are also then subject to poor quality, highly processed food with little to no nutritional value. This is why obesity is also a class-issue. Individuals of a lower socio-economic status are at significantly greater risk for obesity than their peer group.
        As a result, there has been a concerted effort by many food banks to increase the nutritional value of their food stuffs – to a point where they turn away things like potato chips or canned fruit stored in high fructose corn syrup in favor of fresh fruits and veggies. But these have a shelf-life of only a few days.
        Also, be cautious of relying on anecdotal evidence. The real statistics and numbers are often much different than what we see in the exceptional cases.


      • Jeff says:

        Also note that our media is paid to go through thousands of possible stories, pick out the one that most suits their agenda and turn it into “news”. For example, apparently the greatest crime in this country is to kill someone in an interesting way. I see no reason to assume that kids who go to school hungry are associated with parents who have plenty of food for themselves but don’t share, but Fox makes a business of trying to put together isolated examples to divide people or show that people deserve what they get, so I can imagine where ideas like this might come from. In any case, even if this is earnest truth in 1 case, it is exactly the opposite of truth in 10 others, so it should not be used to drive policy.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          My concern wasn’t so much that some parents might not share food as that they might waste money on, say, cigarettes and booze or drugs before budgeting for food first. But in this regard, your point about the media and how they view what topics are “news” is a good one, Jeff. The outrageous stories sell papers. The ones about grinding sacrifice, not so much. Things like the Planet Money podcast (link in post) however, are an exception for those who are willing to take some extra time. Thanks for the input.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I submit that there is an abundance of food in America. The issue is how to distribute it, effectively.

    Progressives call for government to do so, effectively distribute food to the poor and hungry. Has it worked, effectively?

    As noted by Jennifer, half of the people “on food stamps” are children. Yet who gets the money? Not the children, for sure, it is the parents of those hungry kids. By and large, if the food stamp program costs $80 Billion a year, doubling from $40 Billion a year about 4 years ago, the question remains is all that money effectively feeding kids that need better (not “more”) food to eat, three times a day on a regular basis?



  3. aFrankAngle says:

    People love to use definitions in a one-size-fits-all way, which creates a distorted view. But the best part of the post was the ending … Zing!

    Off topic, thanks for the thoughtful comments on various posts through my absence!


  4. Moe says:

    Jim, you ask what would Jesus say? I think they have a different Jesus.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I think they have a different Jesus.

      Gotta be, Moe. If the Jesus of moneychanger fame were to visit some of these prosperity-pushing mega-churches, I think there’d be, uh, hell to pay. 😀


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