“Man does not live by bread alone.”
But, at year’s end and as the holidays kick into high gear, that’s not the Biblical passage that strikes the traditional Christmas tone.
After all, good folks who enjoy some level of abundance (or have the available time during this season) want to help others achieve a little bit more in the Life and Happiness departments of America’s promised “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But how best to do that? As I’ve pointed out previously in this column, no one seems to give that extra dollar dedicated to helping others over to the federal government. We want giving to be effective.
On the other hand, in politics, this time of year merely marks the hurling of labels like Grinch or Scrooge to those who question expanded “safety-net” programs — for instance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which doubled in cost during eight years under President George W. Bush and essentially doubled again in Obama’s first term, from $20 billion annually in 2000 to $78 billion today.
One in seven Americans receives Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which they can use to buy food . . . and perhaps much else.
Can we afford this? Does one in seven Americans need the assistance?
A sign at my local grocery reads in bold print: “DON’T DO IT! BUYING OR SELLING SNAP-EBT BENEFITS (FOOD STAMPS) OR WIC BENEFITS IS A FEDERAL CRIME.”
Recent news reports tell of the illegal selling of the EBT cards on Craigslist and crackdowns on fraudulent stores participating in the program, including one store allegedly owned by an illegal alien that allegedly stole $400,000. The federal government now estimates that illegal scams account for one in 20 “food stamp” transactions.
Fighting poverty matters. From this it follows that how we go about it matters. Big bureaucracies have a great track record of splurging out taxpayer funds like a fire hose, but not for actually helping people get their lives together and become independent.
The problem — and it’s more than just a government problem — goes beyond dollars and cents: how best can we help the poor? A friend recently shared Oscar Benavides’s story. He “left the church with sadness” after handing out Christmas presents to underprivileged children in North Texas.
Benavides noticed that by giving gifts to the poor children, his church had unwittingly usurped the role — and injured the self-respect — of the fathers. He asks, “Could the church be hurting the poor in the process of trying to help them?”
My friend is part of a program in Memphis, Tennessee, that aims to avoid such damage. The group buys toys and then sells them to poor parents at highly discounted prices, thus helping the children have a happy Christmas while also respecting the role of their parents day-in and day-out.
The book, When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, argues that “material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things: rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor.”
As thoughtful as these private religious institutions are in helping the poor, a recent front-page feature in The Washington Post illuminates the abject thoughtlessness of a bureaucratic system of government handouts.
Not government charity, though. The political term at the heart of this dysfunction is “entitlement.” A person is entitled to an entitlement.
And too often entitled to a life of dependence.
And feeling pathetic.
“It was Thursday, which meant giveaways at a place called Bread for the City. Fridays were free medical care at the clinic in Southeast Washington. Saturdays were the food pantry at Ambassador Baptist Church. The 1st of each month was a disability check, the 2nd was government cash assistance and the 8th was food stamps.” That’s how The Post detailed the life and times of one Raphael Richmond, a 41-year-old single mother of six children, five still living at home.
We learn that Ms. Richmond is struggling to make ends meet after having her “food stamps” cut from $290 a month to $246. Yet, by talking her reluctant 22-year-old daughter into applying for the benefit, the household ends up with $420 a month total. Still, her daughter Tiara doesn’t want to carry her EBT card, offering, “I’m not wanting to sign over my independence for good.”
“I’m grown, and I don’t own nothing,” daughter tells mother (in between puffs on an expensive cigarette). “It’s pathetic.”
Mother Raphael seems like a very caring person, helping the children of relatives and those in the neighborhood in addition to her own, while the different fathers of her six children have reportedly paid a whopping grand total of $20 in child support throughout the years. Disabled by a heart problem, Raphael doesn’t work — though one can’t help but think that a normal full-time job would be less stressful than always rushing around town to grab all the free stuff provided.
Ms. Richmond was once independent, back in her early thirties. But, as The Post informs, “then came the reality of what that meant. The increase in her income disqualified her from food stamps, and buying food with cash left nothing to pay the gas bill, and cutting off the heat . . .” — well, it was less work and more workable to simply skip the long work hours and live on disability . . . and food stamps . . . and other assistance.
When $420 a month doesn’t buy all the food the family needs and wants, Ms. Richmond decides it is time to sign up her eldest son. After all, he, too, has no income. She calculates he’ll bring in another $160 a month — or $580 total for the household.
After waiting for hours to receive free food, an older man tries to cut the long line. Raphael berates him, declaring, “What you need to do is get yourself a job.”
She’s absolutely right, of course. That’s exactly what he needs to do. And, her physician willing, what she needs to do. And without any doubt, what her daughter and eldest son should do, too.
If only, in the face of those draconian cuts to her family’s food stamp benefits, which (if you’re counting) have actually doubled, recently, they weren’t being so well rewarded for not getting a job.
It’s not right that food stamps and other programs foster so much waste, fraud and abuse. It’s not fair that hardworking taxpayers are footing the bill for many folks who could do more to handle their own bills.
But most of all, we need radical reform of such welfare programs because man does not live by bread alone. Charity and love can help people lift themselves out of poverty, but government bureaucracies splurging out so-called entitlements make people dependent . . . and feel trapped, “pathetic.” [more links & references]
December 22, 2013
This column first appeared on Townhall.com.