Let Them Eat Steak
Kicking the poor in the teeth never goes out of style, particularly when questions about the nation’s economic future are troubling the minds of many. Ever since food stamps were introduced in 1939, one of FDR’s many radical ideas about how you shouldn’t have to suffer and die just because you’re down and out, there have been those — mostly on the right but increasingly amongst the judgmental wing of lifestyle liberals — who have inveigled against the notion that you should just let people have food to keep them from starving.
Of late, there has been a virtual explosion of comfortable conservatives seeking to restrict, curtail, or outright eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the modern incarnation of food stamps — this after the program has already undergone severe cuts, under the watch of a president who these same conservatives claim is unprecedented in his coddling of the poor with entitlement giveaways. One Missouri politician is moving forward with a plan to stop SNAP recipients from using their aid to buy steak and seafood, a move that not only vastly miscalculates the amount of resources available through SNAP and how they are used, but further encourages those with limited funds to spend them on garbage, a point we will return to later. In Kansas, a state somewhat legendary for its susceptibility to the tales of Republican fabulists, there is a movement to prevent the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) funds to visit, among other things, strip clubs and swimming pools, based on another conception of the lifestyle of poor people that is completely delusional. Other states seek to restrict food stamp users from buying snacks, desserts, or soda. And Wisconsin, under chicken-shit coward Scott Walker, is proposing to drug test recipients of SNAP benefits, following the example of Florida, which has already done so at the price of millions, to catch a minuscule number of weed-puffers, thus obviating the entire point of the program by costing more government money than it saved in catching violators.
I have some experience of food stamps. At my lowest ebb, several years ago, I applied for and was granted SNAP benefits, at a time when I had no job, no income, no assets, and no home of my own. I was not receiving any other form of government assistance, my unemployment benefits having already run out, and SNAP was the only way I could feed myself. As a single male with no spouse or children, I received the lowest level of benefits, coming out to a little less than $40 per week; anyone who has been forced to feed themselves on this laughable amount of money can tell you how ridiculously hard it is, so I won’t belabor the point, other than to say that the very notion of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone steak or lobster, was beyond the realm of possibility, and I instead stocked up on inexpensive crap like ramen noodles, hot dogs, and white bread, not because it was remotely good for me, but because it was cheap. When the state, apparently infuriated that poor people were still dining in high style off the dime of some oil billionaire not savvy enough to dodge his tax burden altogether, enacted even further restraints, I simply stopped using the program and relied on whatever the two relatives who let me stay with them, both of them elderly retired women on a fixed income, could spare. The new restrictions, which included traveling multiple times a week to the benefits office, showing evidence of a job search using methods devised by someone whose conception of looking for employment dated back to the 1950s, and submitting to an onerous analysis of my every food purchase, simply wasn’t worth the tiny amount of aid I would receive. And if it would eat into my time, how burdensome must it have felt to the other people in the program, many of whom had families to support and jobs to do?
There are any number of factors at play in these continual pushes to restrict, regulate, or revoke government aid. There is the old game of morally shaming people who are less fortunate than ourselves (see the erroneous and pointless “only in America are there poor people who are fat” argument), which takes on many forms. No one ever dares suggest dictating to the rich what they can and can’t spend their money on, even if that money comes from government contracts or massive tax breaks, but let a poor person do something to enjoy herself once in a blue moon, like buying a slightly better brand of frozen dinner or a cut of meat that isn’t gray and spoiled, and the knives come out. Add to this the liberal tut-tutting at the atrocious eating habits of poor people — all those fats and sugar! All that starch and salt and preservatives in processed food! Never mind that more healthful food costs more, and often isn’t available in poor urban areas; never mind that taking treats away leaves them not with the choice to eat better, but with no choice but to eat worse.
There’s also the all-too-familiar moral panic of finding a tiny handful of people who abuse the system and using them to condemn the system as a whole. This is behind the drive to drug-test SNAP recipients, an effort that has expended huge amounts of money and yielded results that indicate less than 2% of those tested were drug users; it’s also seen in the Republican obsession with “voter fraud”, which every study has shown is virtually non-existent. Even the granddaddy of food stamp ‘reform’, Ronald Reagan, was typically full of shit; his story about the welfare queen who bought bottles of vodka with her benefits and drove them home in a new Cadillac was always a lie, but that hasn’t stopped generations of his admirers from using it as their blueprint for eliminating welfare. I’m sure there are a handful of people, like the jackass unearthed by FOX News a few years back, who really do use SNAP to buy filet mignon and EBT to visit titty bars, but if we’re going to shut down an entire program that helps millions of people because of the chicanery of a statistically insignificant number of free riders, then we’d also better put every banker in America behind bars because of the ‘few bad apples’ who precipitated our most recent financial crisis.
But really, this is all just smoke and mirrors. The goal is not to make poor people healthier; if it were, liberals would support equal educational opportunities for them, and conservatives would demand that they have access to the same quality of food that wealthier people have. The goal is not to save tax dollars; if it were, huge wastes like drug testing would not be performed. The goal is not to prevent fraud; the fraud that exists is so minute as to barely exist, and is a scrap of a pittance of a crumb compared to the fraud committed by big corporations for bigger government payouts. The goal is the same as it always is: to criminalize poverty. Say that the problem is voter fraud, and the solution will be a measure that will disenfranchise millions of poor but law-abiding citizens; say that the problem is welfare cheats, and the solution will be the elimination of welfare as we know it; say that the problem is food stamp abuse, and the solution will be making the hurdle for getting food stamps so high and the benefits so low that millions will go hungry. The point is not to make people less dependent on government aid; it is to make them more dependent on the slave-labor wages that big-money companies are willing to offer, creating a permanent underclass of low-wage workers with zero mobility.
If you have a large nation with a lot of people who can’t rise to the top, you have two options. You can do what you can to make them equal to your other citizens, lending them a helping hand that allows them to live with dignity on the principal that all men are created equal. We invented that idea, but we no longer practice it; that duty has fallen to the hands of the vile monarchists we once vowed to oppose at any cost because of their hatred of freedom. The other option is the one you see when people natter on about ‘voter fraud’, or complain about food stamp recipients buying lobster and caviar, or ignore the way we have incarcerated more African-Americans than ever sweated under the yoke of slavery, or nod approvingly at a town like Ferguson, where virtually every resident is squeezed for their last pennies by a legal system drunk on money: it is to turn the less fortunate into criminals just for existing, to make people whose every economic decision is an agonizing one even more miserable. That is the one we have chosen, and while it is nothing new to step on the necks of the poor, it takes a lot of guts to claim that it’s their fault we had to wear steel-toed boots.