When Stalin’s collectivization caused mass starvation in Ukraine, he used Orwellian explanations, putting blame on victims. Starving peasants, Stalin said, were a part of the anti-communist conspiracy.
Before becoming disillusioned with Communism, Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler saw Communism as an alternative to capitalism. As the corpses of Russian peasants accumulated, Koestler defended Stalin. He said they were starving themselves, he said, because they were “enemies of the state who preferred begging to work.”
That sounds like what we hear today about people needing help. The denigration of the poor is rather untoward in a country many also believe to be a nation built on Judeo-Christian values.
Communism wasn’t an alternative to capitalism. But capitalism without a conscience poses its own problems. The US has always struggled to make certain our economic system doesn’t lose its conscience.
That’s why safety-net programs were created. The most effective is food stamps. The program started during the Depression as a way of feeding hungry Americans while selling surplus crops and propping up agriculture. It continues to serve those purposes admirably.
During Lent my wife and I are trying to live on a food stamp budget. After recent congressional cuts, that’s $11 per day for the two of us or about a buck 83 apiece for each meal.
We decided to do that for two reasons. One, we wanted to experience what it’s like for those whose life circumstances dictate they feed their family with food stamps. Second, our church started the “Lenten Fund,” a way for people to donate savings from whatever they may sacrifice during Lent. The fund will be used to help families in need.
We’ve blogged about the experience and chronicled some of it on Facebook. The feedback has been striking. Much of it comes from people who’ve actually been there and done that for real. They tell stories of times in their lives when food stamps were a necessity. For many it’s what enabled them to feed their children during tough times.
Equally striking are comments like this one, “At least people on food stamps get free food. I have to work for mine.” The sentiment comes in different forms but mostly reflects the anti-poor bias mythology surrounding the program. Comments often allude to Fox News stories singling out the most egregious uses of food stamps. The one gaining the most currency today is the Seattle surfer who proudly told Fox how he uses the stamps to buy lobster.
Critics turn anecdotes into data because the data proves them wrong.
In a recent program Jon Stewart hit the nail on the head. “Just because six different Fox News shows trotted out the same ‘food stamp abuse bigfoot’ doesn't mean one lobster-eating surfer represents millions of Americans on food assistance.”
Many hold tightly to stereotypes badly in need of updating. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. People tend to filter out facts inconsistent with their prejudices. False stereotypes persist because they confirm our biases.
With the Internet, accurate information is as easy to obtain as untruths. The facts are that 83% of all food stamp benefits go to households with young children or the elderly or disabled. The program imposes work requirements for able-bodied recipients. Many of those receiving assistance are working but at jobs paying so little they still qualify. The average food stamp household has a gross monthly income of $744.
Those who criticize food stamp recipients would do better to turn their unhappiness on politicians who refuse to raise the minimum wage. That would be the most effective means of reducing safety-net costs.
The times call for some empathy among citizens. At some time in our lives, most Americans will need public assistance. Jaron Lanier’s new book “Who Owns the Future” predicts “hyper-unemployment” when computer software replaces drivers of cars and trucks, when machines rather than humans mine coal, and robots provide nursing care.
If Lanier is correct, many of those now harboring resentments about helping others will find themselves in the food stamp line.