John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


40 Billion

Posted on September 20, 2013



Teach a man to fish.

That’s the biblical admonition.

The food stamp program doesn’t do much of that, and that’s probably why we need to rethink our whole social safety net.

House Republicans voted to pass legislation that would save taxpayers about 40 billion dollars of spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

That’s a big number, and I'm pretty certain that it won’t become law.

The Senate has passed legislation to pare back the program by 4 billion dollars.   There is a big difference between 40 and 4 billion dollars, and splitting the difference doesn’t seem possible to me.

The Food Stamp program has increased from about 33 billion dollars five years ago to about 87 billion dollars today.

Most of that can be attributed to the Great Recession, but some of it can also be attributed to the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase participation in the program.

Critics of Obama would say that he is doing this outreach program to get more people hooked on the government spending trough, but the Obama Administration would counter that there are plenty of hungry people who need help, but don’t know how to get it.

Over the last five years, dependency on government handouts has increased dramatically just as labor force participation rates have fallen almost as dramatically.

This is not just an economic issue.  It’s also a cultural issue.

And it’s not an Obama issue.  It’s an American issue.

And it is not a white, black or Hispanic issue.   People of all ethnicities are dropping out of the work force, going on disability, collecting the current version of food stamps and largely hanging out at home.

People claiming disability status for the purposes of collecting Social Security payments have skyrocketed over the last 5 years, especially for people who live between the ages of 18 and 64.

There’s a culture out there that seems to promote the idea that government offers not only temporary assistance, but a permanent way of living that might not be all that comfortable, but one that certainly beats working.

Liberals would say that the reason so many people need assistance is because they can’t find work.   That may be true, but it is also true that for those who don’t care what kind of work they do, work can be found.   That’s why so many people flood into this country without documentation, because they can find work in America.

Polls show that middle class Americans are fed up with paying for able-bodied people who should find a job but don’t or won’t.   The YG Network published a study of swing voters and self-identified Tea Partiers from McGlaughlin and Associates that found widespread concern that people were gaming the system:  Participants across both groups also recognized -- and deeply resented -- that some Americans are "working the system" in order to receive benefits they don't truly need nor deserve. Speaking to the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, one swing participant in our Manassas, Virginia session expressed her concern that "people are taking advantage of the welfare system and it needs to be reformed." A Tea Party participant in Manassas put it this way: "Working the system hurts all the groups. It costs us more money. It hurts us giving it and the really needy."

Is there fraud in the system?

Of course there is.

And it happens at all levels.

Thom Edsall wrote a fascinating story about how the poor exploit the really poor in a competition for survival:

“There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that at times the poor exploit one  another.

For his doctoral research in 2008 and 2009, Jacob Avery, now a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, spent 17 months with homeless men in Atlantic City. What he found was a hierarchy of exploitation.

Avery describes the way that cabdrivers would purchase SNAP food stamp cards — at half their face value — from homeless men desperate for cash to buy liquor or drugs. Other homeless men, who qualify for a meager supplemental-security stipend, took advantage of people with even less money, using their S.S.I. income to buy cartons of cigarettes that they then sold to their fellow homeless men for 50 cents a cigarette.

As Avery dove deeper into his research, he came to see the organization of society as a whole “like layers on a cake, with those at the highest level of each layer exploiting those below.”

 The exploitation of those on the bottom is also revealed in the work of Gretchen Purser, an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University. For her dissertation, Purser spent time with a group of largely “homeless, formerly incarcerated, African-American men” who were paid $6.15 an hour by a major Baltimore property management company to evict tenants behind in their rent.

Purser writes that while poor, homeless African-Americans evicting poor, soon-to-be homeless African-Americans would seem to present “an opportunity for solidaristic identification amongst the poor,” it didn’t work out that way.

Laborers on eviction crews tend to espouse the same disparaging characterizations of tenants as do the property managers who hire them, thus reinforcing the belief that eviction is rooted in the individual moral deficiencies of the tenant. In this social drama of eviction, the vertical conflict between landlord and tenant is subtly transmuted into a lateral conflict amongst the propertyless.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t people who are hungry out there, there aren’t people who need a lot of help, there aren’t disabled Americans who will never find work.

Those folks need help and they probably need more than just an EBT card, a disability payment and a pat on the back.

I think the biggest problem I have with the current welfare system is that it looks at everybody like they are a number, a statistic, just another mouth to feed.

We need a more holistic approach to how we dole out welfare benefits.

We might need to spend more in the short term so we can spent a lot less in the future.

We need to consolidate programs so people with children have one-stop shopping.

We need to do more than just ban those who have a drug problem from getting assistance.   We need to find ways to get those people off of drugs.  That last thing we should do is make their lives even more desperate, because it leads to more societal problems.

Our first priority should be to take care of our kids.  Kids shouldn’t go hungry and if we need programs to provide them both breakfast and lunch at school, we should do that.

Second, we should make certain that all able-bodied people have a job, any job.   People shouldn’t be able to collect welfare benefits for watching the latest cable shows on their couch.

Third, those who apply for welfare benefits, but fail their drug tests should be forced to get mandatory treatment to get off drugs.

Four, disability requirements should be tightened up.  You shouldn’t be able to get an SSI check because you are too fat to work.

Finally, our social safety net should work harder to keep people from falling through the cracks.

I doubt that the 40 billion dollars that House Republicans cut from the food stamp program is going to become law, but hopefully it will spur a bigger discussion about how we can reimagine the safety net so that it serves people, not numbers.