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.

 

Comments

  • Rkr

    This is a very good question. Why are people dependent on the safety net willing to vote it out of existence?

  • Dave

    Interesting program. I would seem that a great deal has been done to combat fraud in the food stamp program. The content of the show once again demonstrates the detachment our political leaders seem to suffer. There continues to be an ongoing dialogue concerning the need to reduce government oversight of many state and federal programs. But I would argue that the beaucracy is composed of our fellow citizens and that they are no more predisposed to an unproductive work ethic than shall we say our leadership in Washington. Perhaps the definitions of conservative and liberal are being revised. But assisting our fellow man is not a conservative or liberal ideal. It is a characteristic of being an American. More television programming of this nature an less “reality” TV. By the way what the heck is reality TV?

  • Dave

    Interesting program. I would seem that a great deal has been done to combat fraud in the food stamp program. The content of the show once again demonstrates the detachment our political leaders seem to suffer. There continues to be an ongoing dialogue concerning the need to reduce government oversight of many state and federal programs. But I would argue that the beaucracy is composed of our fellow citizens and that they are no more predisposed to an unproductive work ethic than shall we say our leadership in Washington. Perhaps the definitions of conservative and liberal are being revised. But assisting our fellow man is not a conservative or liberal ideal. It is a characteristic of being an American. More television programming of this nature an less “reality” TV. By the way what the heck is reality TV?

  • Guest

    Does your family have a lobbyist? Can you vote yourself a pay raise? Do you have a job that you do not have to show up to work? Do you make a  6 figure income? Can you “legally” engage in insider trading? Do you have an office that cost between $1 million and $4 million a year and someone else pays for it? Our government is broken.We had laws to control Wall Street, the banks, and corporations.Our elected ( rigged elections or not) officials did not do their job. POLITICIANS ARE LIKE DIAPERS…THEY SHOULD BE CHANGED OFTEN AND FOR THE SAME REASON !

  • jan

    Some of The Root of Our Problems

    Corporate outsourcing jobs.
    Corporate insourcing jobs.
    Suppression of wages over the past 30 years or more.
    Corporate policies of cutting benefits and pensions or dropping them entirely. 
    Corporate policies of benefits that are paper benefits only-an illusion or maybe a delusion.
    Corporate welfare also known as government subsidizing corporate failure.

  • Anonymous

    This was a very good, sobering report.  The ballooning of the food stamp numbers seems to have coincided with the Republican move to cut taxes on the well-to-do and exacerbate wealth divisions in the country.

  • Mnkovar

    What a sad situation this country is in at this time. I think that the growing gap between the highest wages in the U.S, and the middle class is disgraceful and perpetuates the “take care of me” feeling of the top level company employees instead of fostering a sense of pride in your occupation and the company for which you are employed. Citizens who work full time should not have to work 1 or 2 part time jobs in addition in order to provide for thier families. Full time workers should be paid a living wage – freeing many of the part time jobs for students and working women with children. Very wealthy Americans should take a close look at helping thier own employees instead of spending money on social programs to further thier philanthropic images.
    Thank you.

  • Hrm711

    It tells us that the progressive dream is becoming a reality.Make more people dependant on government, take away incentives to be self sufficient.

  • Anonymous

    So, tell me Mr. Greenfield, should Americans and legal residents be given fist crack at jobs- in America? about 200 former Pacific Steel workers who recently lost their jobs after an immigration audit marched from downtown Be An undocumented resident, Cervantes said he made about $38,000 a year. He has three children, and his wife works for McDonalds.
    rkeley on Friday morning to the steel plant in a peaceful protest of immigration laws…

  • Anonymous

    This is so very disturbing and sad to see. I feel for these people, yet I feel that as Americans we have taken sooooo much for granted for far too long. I support WIC, Food Stamps, and Extended Unemployment. People are hurting, especially children, the working poor, and the elderly.

    Many believe that their food stamp allotment is “unlivable”–and that may well be the case. May I just suggest, though, as Americans, we have gotten way to lazy regarding purchasing “processed” and “pre-packaged” foods vs. “home-made”. Yes, I get the argument that many people cannot cook, or it’s a lot of work if you have a large family. Still, if you are on WIC/Food Stamps, relying on your own skills to prepare nutritious meals is your best bet in stretching your limited budget. I am not criticizing anyone–just trying to be helpful.

    My partner and I are both currently unemployed, but managing to squeak buy. As 2 grown adults, we eat quite well on…I am NOT KIDDING…about $120-$140/month. Here’s a sample of my recent shopping bill this week from various stores:

    Stroehmann’s Bakery Outlet:

    2 loaves White King-Sized Bread, 1 Loaf Wheat @3/$1 $3 total
    2 packs Stroehmann’s Hot Bog Buns, 1 pack Hamburger Buns  3/$1 each $3 total

    Save-A-Lot Food Store

    10 lb. bag frozen chicken legs (thighs and drumsticks) $.59/lb for $5.90 total
    5 lb. bag Goya rice, $3.99
    2 lb. bag Goya Kidney Beans, $3.49
    2 lb. bag store brand split green peas, $3.49
    20 cans assorted vegetables  $.69/each, $13.80
    1 bag frozen peas, 24 oz. $1.49
    2 containers Grade A Large Eggs, 18 count, $1.89/each, $3.78 total
    1 bag frozen broccoli, 24 oz, $2.49
    15 cans Starkist White Chunk Tuna $1/each $15 total
    10 boxes Marita’s brand pasta $1/each, $10 total
    10 cans Hunt’s Pasta Sauce, $1 each, $10 total
    1 Butterball Frozen Turkey, 20 lbs /$1.19/lb $23.80 total
    4 packs Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs, $1/each $4 total
    4 Banquet Brand frozen breakfast sausages, 8 per box, $1/each, $4/total
    2 bags Dole Salad Mix, $1/each, $2 total
    2 1lb bags carrots/ $1/each $2 total
    4 cucumbers, $.50/each, $2.00 total
    12 Roma Tomatoes, $.99/lb, $2.49 total
    5 lb bag onions, $2.50
    6 lb bag Idaho Potatoes, $3.99
    Generic Oatmeal, 16 oz, $1.99
    Store brand Mayo…24 oz, $2.49
    Country Crock Spread, 48 oz. on sale for $2.50l
    Ramen Noodles, 8-pack, $1.99

    2 Gallons 2% Whole Milk, $3.69/each, $7.38

    Amelia’s Grocery:

    Philly Brand Beef Burgers, 8 oz/12 per pack, $7.90.

    The grand total for the month is about $160.00…but remember the bulk purchases like meat, potatoes, rice, beans, carry over a long time!

    I realize many people don’t have access to “low cost” supermarkets, co-ops, and manufacturing distributors. But look around, you might be SURPRISED.

    Since I have managed to save a good deal in purchasing my own food, I feel compelled to give back and donate to a local food bank. If everyone could just have the mind set of donating at least a few cans of food, few boxes of rice/pasta every month…or GOD FORBID, when your family is gathering to chow down on a few take-outs on Fri/Sat. to the tune of $30 or so…please realize that $30 can truly feed people and go a long way that need it!

    Peace.

  • Anonymous

    I agree 100%!

  • Carochip

    Less government, more self reliance.  There is something every able bodied person can do to put food on their tables.  The corporations buying the government shouldn’t keep us from working hard and holding on to our pride.  That is what we are losing…..or have lost.  Sad.  We need to quit comparing ourselves to those who are the wealthiest.  Work hard and love your family.

  • Carochip

    How do we make this big change?  Isn’t that what the Tea Party was trying to do?  Wasn’t the government supposed to protect us and our constitutional rights?  Now they are feeding us, housing us, buying jobs for us, etc., etc., and most recently , fighting to pay for our birth control pills.  Government is the problem.  They also make on average twice what the average American makes annually. 

  • jan

    To Carochip:  I keep asking myself why conservatives/libertarians appear to have a need to think of others as inferior. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Al-Sealzio/100000441981654 Al Sealzio

    Rickets and other  disorders  are minimized thanks to  feeding programs.  Childhood  disorders as well as inadequate development from protein deficiency have been all but eliminated  The price of food
     is down by giving food producers a market for products  they couldn’t sell.  Food Stamps is an agriculture program not welfare.  

  • guest

    Yes, we can stand on our own when employers pay a living wage. Then government help will not be needed. Consider – say the average employee at, say Wal-mart for example, makeing just over minimum wage. If they are lucky to get in 40 hours per week, their weekly pay would be around $320.00 before deductions.
    One gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter will cost over an hours work. Two gallons of gas
    another hours work. A new pair of shoes another hours work. Rent would be $500.00 and up per month depending on where you live. Then there is a car payment, insurance and upkeep for the car, utility bills,
    If you have a child there is child care needed for you to work. And heaven help if there is an emergency or something breaks. There is no way people can live on minimum or just above wages.We all can not be doctors, lawyers, merchants or chiefs- or government employees. Someone must  work and those workers, who serve us at walmart and other stores, who drive our children to and from school, who clean our offices, shops and stores, who do our dry cleaning, ect. these people should be paid a living wage and then people can stand proud- on their own……………