Food stamp usage is at record levels according to the New York Times, with one in eight Americans now receiving benefits. There are several reasons for the upswing, including expanded eligibility in the 2000s and the severe economic downturn. The following chart shows the dramatic rise in spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as the Food Stamp program until 2008 when Congress changed its name to sound more palatable.
Most Americans think that we should aid those in real need, but individuals should do so voluntarily without resorting to forced government transfers.
The Times gives three examples of people who recently started receiving food aid. Each offers some food for thought.
The first is a 45 year-old Harlem widow with an annual income of $15,000. A food bank had encouraged her to apply for the benefits:
A big woman with a broad smile, Ms. Bostick-Thomas swept into the group’s office a few days later, talking up her daughters’ college degrees and bemoaning the cost of oxtail meat. “I’m not saying I go hungry,” Ms. Bostick-Thomas said. “But I can’t always eat what I want.” The worker projected a benefit of $147 a month. “That’s going to help!” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone and applied on my own.”
I don’t know this woman’s exact circumstances, and there’s no reason to doubt she needs assistance. But aren’t her college-educated daughters in a position to help their mother? Government welfare undermines the traditional role the family played in mutual assistance.
Here’s the second example:
Juan Diego Castro, 24, is a college graduate and Americorps volunteer whose immigrant parents warned him “not to be a burden on this country.” He has a monthly stipend of about $2,500 and initially thought food stamps should go to needier people, like the tenants he organizes. “My concern was if I’m taking food stamps and I have a job, is it morally correct?” he said.
But federal law eases eligibility for Americorps members, and a food bank worker urged him and fellow volunteers to apply, arguing that there was enough aid to go around and that use would demonstrate continuing need. “That meeting definitely turned us around,” Mr. Castro said.
This fellow’s annualized monthly stipend is more than I made in my first job in Washington. And for Mr. Castro, who was warned not to be a burden on this country, he ought to be told that the federal Americorps program is exactly that. But more disconcerting is the fact that the food bank worker urged him and his colleagues to go the dole in order to advertise it.
This anecdote illustrates Michael Tanner’s argument that government poverty programs serve vested interests:
Among the non-poor with a vital interest in anti-poverty programs are social workers and government employees who administer the programs. Thus, anti-poverty programs are usually more concerned with protecting the prerogatives of the bureaucracy than with fighting poverty.
The last example from the Times is a Colombian immigrant who missed three months of work as a janitor because she fell and had to have knee surgery:
Last November, she limped into a storefront church in Queens, where a food bank worker was taking applications beside the pews.
About her lost wages, she struck a stoic pose, saying her san cocho — Colombian soup — had less meat and more plantains. But her composure cracked when she talked of the effect on her 10-year-old daughter. “My refrigerator is empty,” Ms. Catano said.
Last month, Ms. Catano was back at work, with a benefit of $170 a month and no qualms about joining 38 million Americans eating with government aid. “I had the feeling that working people were not eligible,” she said. “But then they told me, ‘No, no, the program has improved.’”
This is precisely the sort of person that is deserving of charity. But the federal government isn’t a charity; it is a forced transfer machine. The less fortunate, and society as a whole, would be better off if the taxes paid to support inefficient, counterproductive government programs were instead left in the hands of supportive individuals and organizations.
See this essay for more on government food subsidies.