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Jeff Greenfield on food stamps and the American safety net

The argument over food stamps is part of a debate that has been part of the national conversation for decades: Is government aid to those in need a measure of our caring? Or does a “safety net” in fact trap those it seeks to help in a cycle of dependency? But concealed in this debate is, I think, a more troublesome question: What does it tell us about our country that so many require assistance to meet some of the most fundamental of needs?

The statistics, as you’ve heard, tell us that some 46 million Americans now receive help in buying food — that’s about one in seven. They include millions of people who work, including those in our military. More than 60 million Americans receive help in paying for health care, through state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs. Millions also, through one program or another, get help to pay for housing, and receive assistance to heat their homes.  And, as a recent New York Times piece detailed, even Americans who vigorously oppose the whole idea of government “handouts” receive benefits of one kind of another.

Now, take a step back from the arguments, left and right, about these programs and ask yourself a different question: What does it tell us about the richest country on the face of the Earth that so many must turn to the government for such basic needs? One of the core premises of America’s understanding of itself is that we are a nation where anyone, no matter what the circumstances of birth, has the capacity to forge a self-sufficient life. And however true it was that this premise went unfulfilled — especially for those with the “wrong” skin color or gender or background — it was still true for countless Americans for much of our history.

Especially in the days after World War II, it was perfectly reasonable to believe that, if you were willing to work, you could find a relatively secure job that would enable you to provide for your family, to live in a good home, to send your kids to college, and to have enough left over to enjoy a reasonably comfortable life. If you came out of the military, the money would be there to get a decent education through the GI bill, to gain entry into the middle class, and — through subsidized mortgages — to get a piece of the American dream, in the form of a home of your own.

Now, that dream is increasingly out of reach for millions of Americans without specialized skills and education. Now, we are told, we have become less mobile than many other “first world” nations. Now, with the impact of Great Recession still leading to lower wages, fewer benefits, and far less security for those nearing retirement, the expectations of older generations now seem like the fading remnants of another, better time.

Whatever the merits of the “safety net” on which so many now rely, it cannot be a source of comfort that so many of us now require that net beneath our feet. And it raises one essential question: Is there a way for America to get back to a place where, rather than needing that net beneath our feet, we are once again able to stand on our own.