Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Food stamp abuse bigfoots"

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.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Good morning UKRAINE


This morning’s blog post is aimed for Ukrainian readers. I was pleasantly surprised by statistical reports that said last week 46 people logged onto my blog from Ukraine.

In this part of the US, many would like to hear from you. If you have logged on from Ukraine, please take time to respond in the “comment box” at the bottom.

I asked Facebook friends what they’d like to say to Ukrainians if given the chance.

From Australia, Marilyn J. Patton wrote, “I wish them many blessings and much love and hope they have courage to do what they think is best in the situation for them and their families.”

Terry A. Allen’s comment reflected many who would like to hear from real people in Ukraine rather than relying on the media to tell us what’s going on. “I hope your news coverage is better than our Yellow, Biased Propaganda BS.”

My reference to “the Ukraine” was corrected by Brenda Baker who wrote, “My grandson married a girl from Ukraine. She speaks three languages and grammatically correct English. Ukrainians prefer to say they're from Ukraine, not The Ukraine. Anne Costello Edmunds confirmed that and provided me this link to the story of how and why.

The essay found at teaches that dropping the article “the” was an integral part of claiming Ukrainian independence from the former Soviet Union. The writer says, “Today, the Ukraine is considered antiquated and insulting, and using it in well-informed company is a bad idea.” I won’t make that mistake again!
Several readers seconded the emotion expressed by Mike Moser who asked that I relay this. “That we wish them freedom. The freedom to start with nothing and accomplish much... to live your dreams. We whine a lot as Americans... about the press, the politicians, the economy, which are sometimes flawed, but we have the freedom to do so. Their neighbors... and invaders... to the north do not. I hope that the U.S. and E.U. stand with the good people of Ukraine so they can whine as freely as we do. We've always had freedom, so we tend to take it for granted. Godspeed, Ukraine... I pray that our politicians, and citizens, remember your future is also ours.”
Michael R ODonnell wrote, “Warm thoughts for the Ukrainians and may their hopes of self-determination continue and be real.” From Jane Ifland, “I wish you life, peace, and confidence in the future.”
Susan Kotowicz wondered if relatives she used to have in Ukraine were still there, “Hi relatives who used to be part of Poland, if any still exist there. We had some people in Kiev at one time! I wish you peace and freedom!”
From the state of Pennsylvania, Corbin Fowler wrote, “I wish Ukraine and Crimea peace and a happy future coexisting with one another.” And Janet Carol Whitehead said she admires “Ukrainian courage to fight for what we call freedom in spite of the overwhelming odds.”
Many others simply clicked on the “Like” button to signal agreement with many of the comments others posted.
There is a great deal of interest here in what is happening in Ukraine. News about Ukraine rivals the Malaysian airliner story for airtime. We hear hourly the barbs being traded between Presidents Obama and Putin. But we hear almost nothing from the real people who are living in the center of this storm.
Generations of Americans born after World War II are scurrying to learn the history of the Ukraine. Suddenly books like Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” are bestsellers. Snyder recounts the tragic history of ghastly violence perpetrated against Ukrainian people by Stalin and Hitler during the war years and those leading up to and those following WWII.
Knowing something about that history has given people in the United States a greater respect for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters and has heightened our concerns for what you are facing today.
You are in our thoughts and on our minds.

Monday, March 24, 2014

$36.74 left for the month!

Not surprisingly, I’m finding it challenging to live on a food stamp grocery budget. My wife and I are doing so during Lent in order to experience what that’s like for millions of American families for whom life’s exigencies make it the only way to put food on their children’s tables.

We are donating the difference between what we usually spend on groceries to the Lenten Fund at Highlands Presbyterian Church to be used during the year to help the countless people who call us looking for help when they fall through the cracks in the community safety net.

Prior to recent congressional cuts in the food stamp program, the Department of Family Services tells me that the monthly allotment for the two of us would have been $367 per month. Now the allotment has been reduced to $347. Thank you Mike Enzi, John Barrasso, and Cynthia Lummis!

Our first “month” started on Ash Wednesday, March 5th, when the Lenten Season began. Nineteen days in and we’ve spent $310.26 of our $347. There are thirty-six dollars and 74 cents remaining to cover the next twelve days.

The good news is that a recent shopping trip stocked the refrigerator with fruit and vegetables. The bad news is they must be eaten rather quickly if they’re not to go bad. We’ll likely be without fresh fruit or vegetables for the last week or so of this first month.

The other practical problem we’ve encountered is planning meals with few carbohydrates. The meats and vegetables necessary to do that are a great deal more expensive than are foods filled with carbs. The goal is to eat 20 grams of carbs or fewer every day. But the can of pinto beans that cost only sixty-eight cents has that much per serving…and darn…those servings are smaller than I would have thought.

On the other hand, a pound of ground beef has no carbs but it cost me four dollars and eighteen cents.

I have received some helpful advice from readers. One gave me a primer on couponing. Have you ever tried to do that seriously? She referred me to another woman who will meet with me this week to give me some help in figuring out the routine. It’s clear that couponing can save a great deal on your food budget if you are willing to spend a great deal of time looking for coupons, cataloging them, and developing a strategy that takes you to a variety of stores where you can use them to your best advantage.

So far I have learned that there are grocery stores that will match manufacturer coupons up to a dollar or more and that when you can match those coupons with the store’s occasional sales prices, you get a heck of a deal.

I have also learned the necessity of becoming “price-aware.” It doesn’t help to look at the Wednesday morning grocery store ads unless you are keenly aware of the usual cost of the items you purchase. That takes homework but pays a huge dividend. I am not there yet but having less than thirty-five dollars left in this month’s grocery budget is quite a motivator.

Another suggestion was to experiment with menus. It’s surprising, she wrote, how good you can make some rather bland, unexciting but inexpensive, foods taste. For example, Brussels spouts can be very tasty if they are roasted instead of boiled or microwaved. Sprinkle a little olive oil on them. Add some of your favorite seasoning. Roast them at 400 degrees for thirty minutes, turning them often to avoid burning. I’ll be dong that more often. And a large bag of brussels sprouts that will be a part of 3-4 meals cost only $2.48. Roasted they have a net of 6 grams of carbs.

It’s good for the soul to experience what some of your friends and neighbors experience. Living on food stamps takes a great deal of work and effort and a complete revision of skills and expectations.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Today's word is "poltroonish"

American jurisprudence has long upheld the Blackstone rule. "It’s better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” English jurist William Blackstone first established this foundational concept in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England” published in the 1760s.
Benjamin Franklin raised the stakes ten-fold. "It’s better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent should suffer".
Not everyone agrees. Bismarck, the German strongman Henry Kissinger called “the man of blood and iron,” turned Blackstone’s formula upside down. "It’s better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape.” Pol Pot agreed. He was the Cambodian dictator responsible for executing 3 million of his fellow countrymen. Pol Pot didn’t really care whether anyone was innocent.

So, which is it? You might ask State Representative Bob Nicholas. The Cheyenne legislator parodized the Blackstone rule, establishing the Nicholas rule. “It’s better to use the legislature to convict a man when the criminal justice system proves inadequate.”

Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne spent 23 long years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. The Judiciary Committee spent a year studying how to make that right. Legislation was proposed compensating wrongfully convicted people. The bill was defeated on the final day of the session. A conference committee couldn’t agree with an eleventh hour amendment offered by Nicholas.

Nicholas strategically offered his amendment when there was no further opportunity for testimony or hearings. He proposed requiring anyone wrongfully convicted to return to court to prove they are innocent even after the prosecutor dismissed the charges and the court had “entered an order of actual innocence and exoneration.”

In America, a person is presumed innocent. But Nicholas presumes those wrongfully convicted are guilty until they prove their innocence. His amendment imposed an onerous and expensive hardship, shifting the burden of proof to the accused.

Nicholas targeted Andrew Johnson with a preposterous argument that the DNA evidence was meaningless, that Johnson was, despite it, guilty. Nicholas outlandishly claimed this case is like “the OJ Simpson case,” adding, “the idea that he didn’t commit (the crime) is ridiculous.” He “knows” because, he says, he met with the prosecutor, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar.

If Homar has sufficient evidence of Johnson’s guilt, he should do more than talk to legislators. He should try the case. Homar could have chosen to do so. He didn’t. He decided the evidence was insufficient.

At the time Homar said, “Due to time lapse, unavailability of physical evidence, unavailability and credibility of witnesses and the recent DNA evidence, we have concluded that we are no longer able to overcome our burden of proof,” the news release says. “We are therefore ethically obligated to dismiss the charges against Mr. Johnson at this time.”

The District Attorney is ethically bound to produce facts. Representative Nicholas was under no such “ethical obligation” on the House floor

What makes Nicholas especially disingenuous is his own experience with the justice system. Facts surrounding criminal charges filed against Nicholas are well known and needn’t be repeated here. Those charges were dismissed, saving Nicholas the experience of being convicted and imprisoned for a crime for which the state later admitted it has insufficient evidence.

What makes Nicholas’ behavior poltroonish is that as a lawyer he knows the import of the DA dismissing the charges against Johnson. Even so, Nicholas was willing to make allegations against a citizen, but only while under the cover of legislative immunity. (I resorted to a thesaurus for just the right word. The right word in this case is “poltroonish.” It means “utter cowardice.”)

Mr. Johnson was twice denied a fair trial; first in the courtroom because DNA evidence wasn’t yet available; second on the floor of the legislature where there are no rules of evidence and too few ethical standards.

Nicholas should stand trial before a jury of his peers, i.e. the voters. It’s better, Blackstone might agree, that one legislator lose his job for poltroonish conduct than others get the idea that the voters accept this behavior.