It is perhaps rarer than a blue moon that both major US political parties agree on something. However, on one point at least, there is consensus between Democrats and Republicans: The food stamps program must change.
“SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities. SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. The Food and Nutrition Service works with State agencies, nutrition educators, and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure that those eligible for nutrition assistance can make informed decisions about applying for the program and can access benefits.”
It’s a terrific program for those who are in unfortunate circumstances, but there is agreement in Washington that people who are benefiting from SNAP should eventually enter into the workforce so that they can sustain themselves. Last year, Congress approved a $200 million expenditure to determine the best way to do just that. Earlier this year, the Obama administration followed up by announcing grants to 10 states to move the initiative forward.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department is responsible for SNAP, said that the grants should enable able-bodied adults to move into the labor force:
“The need for SNAP for these individuals who will be benefiting from this pilot will be reduced and, ultimately, hopefully eliminated,” he said.
A Matter of States’ Rights…
Exactly how the money will be spent varies from state to state. For example, Vermont plans to use the money to find jobs for people who are typically hard to employ, such as those who have criminal records or are homeless. In Mississippi, the money will be used to provide a job-readiness course for people seeking employment.
Vilsack is looking to the states to learn which programs are the most effective: “That’s the right way to deal and administer a SNAP program. It’s certainly not to block the resources to states,” he said.
With that statement, he signaled that there is still some disagreement on Capitol Hill about how best to approach the problem. While both parties agree that something must be done, they are not in agreement about what that something should be.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, for one, wants states to have more control over SNAP: “The SNAP program … we believe, is much better run at the state level as opposed to the federal level,” Price said. He also pointed out that most SNAP recipients tend to be disabled, elderly, or children, and that those people would not be eligible for work.
Price, a Republican, supports a budget plan that involves turning SNAP into a so-called “block grant” program for states. As a matter of principle, he and many members of his party believe that local control is best for programs like SNAP. He also believes that the plan will save federal taxpayers $125 billion over the next 10 years and reduce inefficiencies.
Doug Besharov is a SNAP expert at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He said that Price’s block grant proposal is “a placeholder” that the GOP is using as a way to signal that the party wants the SNAP program to be changed, even though the ultimate change might not involve a block grant.
Rep. Mike Conaway is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which has oversight responsibilities for SNAP. He called the block grant program “aspirational.”
“We’re not proposing any specific legislation right now. We’re just looking at the existing program, trying to determine what’s working, what’s not working,” he said. “The opportunity to craft a program that helps people climb out of whatever economic hole they’re in and get further up the economic ladder.”
Conaway said that he’ll be watching the states to see how they spend the money. He hopes to know by next year which projects are working best.
…Or a Matter of Human Rights?
But let’s sweep aside the politics for a moment and get to the heart of the real issue.
Regardless of which political party or agenda ultimately triumphs in this debate, let’s not ignore the fact that what we’re discussing here goes beyond mere policymaking, and even beyond human dignity: access to healthful food is a human right.
America is home to a wide variety of charitable organizations that have made human dignities their sole mission. Organizations like the Peace Corps and ABWE do great work in remote and impoverished areas like the middle east and Papua New Guinea, but the mistake would be to lean too heavily on these already cash-strapped charities to invoke changes at a local level and lift people out of poverty back in the States. That’s a job for government—not for a charity.
It’s popular to assume that poverty—and starvation—are both “community problems” instead of issues shared collectively by participants in a modern society. We are not animals; human beings long ago shrugged off the curse of survival of the fittest. Each and every one of us should be sickened by the thought of any American going to sleep hungry, or dying of starvation in the street somewhere. Even more reprehensible are the politicians who seem willing to allow it to happen, or who want to levy draconian restrictions on how the poor put their food stamps to work. Government overreach is not providing our less privileged citizens with benefits; it’s in assuming we know better than they how to use those benefits.
Whatever the future may hold for welfare in America—and let’s not discount the possibility of a Basic Income—it’s clear that participation in modern society comes with certain modern responsibilities. And as long as both parties agree on that point, I’m willing to remain optimistic that we’re on the right road.
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