CNN has become the latest organization to jump on the "Food Stamp Challenge" bandwagon, with New Orleans-based correspondent Sean Callebs reporting on his experiences living on $176 -- the maximum amounts of benefits he could get under the Louisiana food stamp program -- for the month of February.
Nine days in, he has $100 left.
Reading though comments on his blog (or any number of message boards on the Internet) is instructive. For instance, we learn, over and over, that:
1) Food stamps were never meant to pay for ALL a person/family's food, and anyone who is using it that way is a fat, lazy bastard.
2) Food stamp recipients are all fat, lazy bastards who fill their carts with nothing but chips, soda pop, brand-name items and candy.
3) Food stamp recipients are all fat, lazy bastards who fill their carts with steak and shrimp -- sometimes steak and lobster -- before buying a carton of smokes with their cash and jumping in their shiny new SUV and driving off into the sunset.
Yup. The leeching poor and Cadillac-driving welfare queens are alive and well and probably shopping in your local Kroger right this very minute. Apparently, alongside a bunch of busy-bodies who have nothing better to do than monitor other people's food choices and pass judgment.
These stories always have a ring of authenticity. They invariably start out "I was at the store the other day...." and end with "my family and I live on x dollars a months, and we never buy...." thus contrasting the virtuous narrator with the venal welfare slob. (Guess who wins that match-up?)
Of course, there is some truth to the tales they tell. Food stamps were not designed to be a person's whole food allotment. But as wages have stagnated and the cost of living has climbed ever-upward, more and more people have been forced to use it as such.
And there are some food stamp recipients who game the system -- buying food with stamps and reselling for cash, trading cards for cash at half the face value, trading cards for services or drugs or what have you.
Underground economies flourish in any cash-poor environment. That was the case well before the establishment of the modern welfare system. It's a simple fact of survival for the poor and working class.
But people don't make "good" food choices! the moralizers cry.
The food stamp program is a creature of the Department of Agriculture, not Health and Human Services. From the government's standpoint, a potato chip is as good as a potato. The difference between buying fatty ground chuck and a nice filet mignon is negligible. Anything that keeps industrial food production humming is fine. Concerns about the pressure a generation of bad eating is putting on the health care system is secondary, at best.
But these are our tax dollars!
Sure. Our tax dollars also fund wars. We have the right to protest wars. But would you ever go up to a individual soldier and say: "The Kevlar helmet is fine, but do you really need that bulletproof vest? I mean, couldn't you just duck?"
Over 30 million Americans are currently enrolled for food assistance, and uncounted others are relying on increasingly strained food banks and charity programs. That number is surely going to climb as our economy continues to falter.
When we see someone using food stamps or debit cards and feel the urge to make that easy moral judgment, keep in mind that they didn't necessarily get there through a lack of personal ambition.
They are fellow citizens, bearing the brunt of almost half a century of wage suppression and loss of industry, the massive subsidies of corn, soybeans and beef, the ubiquitous advertising of cheap food, the flight of grocery stores from the inner cities and the rural exurbs, and a host of other bad choices and failed policies.
Let them eat their shrimp cocktail in peace.
Last week: I asked if it was time to ground Air Force One, talked about the wrongheaded economic ideologies of both the Republicans AND the Democrats, and shared my slightly dim view of Nadya Suleman's decision to bear octuplets.