Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Let them eat Spam (What's Wrong With Welfare, Part II)

This is Part II of a series. Click here to read Part I.

There are a number of practical issues about how Food Stamps, TANF, and Medicaid are being administered, that I will begin to deal with in my next post, but before I get to all of those issues, I wanted to spend a bit of time on some theoretical questions that I think are important to think about… however, I am too much of a pragmatist to think that much will come of my comments on these issues, because they would involve revolutionary changes to the current system. I am more optimistic about suggestions regarding how best to administer the current system, than I am that what I say here will result in a fundamental overhaul of the system. But in any case… here it goes:

I. Should the government be involved in these programs to begin with?

As a Christian, I believe that it is primarily the responsibility of believers to help meet the needs of the poor, and I do believe that private charities do a better job of actually helping the poor when comparing the bang we get from private charitable dollars compared to equivalent government dollars. Government welfare programs can be dehumanizing and (as we have often seen historically) can result in creating more long term social harm than good.

One big problem with government entitlements is that people feel entitled to them. There is no gratitude to faceless government bureaucracies from those who receive benefits from them, and those bureaucracies are not able to evaluate particular cases based on intangible factors such as whether or not the person requesting help is doing all they can to improve their own situations, or whether that person is engaging in behavior that only worsens their situation (such as continuing to have illegitimate children from absent fathers who have no intention of providing any support to their offspring). A bureaucracy can only establish eligibility criteria that try to identify those who are needy, and if a person who is pregnant with her fifth illegitimate child is applying for benefits, she can be treated no differently than a woman who has five legitimate children from a husband she had every reason to believe would always be there to support her, but has unexpectedly left her.

I once interviewed a man who was applying for assistance, whose wife had just run out on him and his daughter, who had just been laid off his job, and had a car note and a house note that was more than his unemployment benefits. He was ineligible because his relatively new car put him over the resource limit. Now, in Houston, you cannot practically work without a car, and suggesting to this man that he should sell his car and live off that money until it ran out, and then come back to reapply would have been the most counter-productive course of action possible. Telling this man that he was not eligible for Food Stamps or TANF was one of the most gut wrenching things I ever had to do as a case worker. He was in a desperate situation, and the look on his face was like the look of Job, after the third messenger had shared the bad news of the day to him. On the other hand, I have had cases in which people were clearly milking the system for all it was worth, and I had no choice but to continue the flow of the milk, because on paper, they were more needy than the guy I had to deny, although any objective observer would have known better. Many welfare recipients have adjusted their lifestyle to receive the maximum benefits, and when all the government benefits are tallied, they actually do quite nicely for themselves, though they must engage in soul destroying behaviors that destroy their lives and the lives of their children. All too often, we end up subsidizing irresponsibility and dysfunctionality.

My grandmother lived before the Great Society, and she was pregnant at age 15 with my mother, during the great depression, was unmarried, and after being kicked out by her family, she was homeless. Had she been born 40 years later, she would no doubt have entered a generational cycle of dysfunction that would not only have imprisoned her in a dehumanizing system, but her descendants as well… myself included (that is, of course, assuming that she would not have just aborted my mother). Instead, she had my mother at a Salvation Army hospital, was helped back onto her feet, married a good man, had several more children, and became a productive tax-paying citizen. And she always felt a debt of gratitude to the Salvation Army.

Government handouts are dehumanizing because instead of another human being showing their love, and helping out a person by meeting their need, showing them how to improve their situation, and holding them accountable; you have a faceless bureaucracy, with forms and rules, no love, and (all too often) no common sense. The Salvation Army could tell my Grandmother that she had sinned, but that God loved her, wanted to forgive her, and wanted her to live a better life. A Bureaucrat cannot make “value judgments” about the “life-styles” of the people who apply for benefits – he can only put their information into the computer, and see if the computer says they are eligible, and if so, for how much. There is something redemptive about a person giving someone else help, when the person receiving it knows that the help is not owed… that they are not “entitled” to it, but that the person is helping them because they love them. This kind of help inspires the receiver, and blesses the giver. But unfortunately, this is the difference between charity (which is the Latin equivalent to the Greek word “agape” and refers to the kind of love that comes from God) and welfare.

All that having been said, in the Great Depression, private charities were unable to meet all of the needs, and so the government began stepping in. I think it is highly unlikely that the government will cease to play a roll in these areas, and so do not think it is worth expending a lot of energy trying to change that reality. If we ended all government programs tomorrow, we would start creating new ones the first time we saw old people eating dog food, or kids living under bridges with their mother. I think the best we can hope for is that the government will try to play its roll in a more constructive way.

II. Should the TANF and Food Stamp Programs be done away with?

During the Great Depression, the government did help people in need, but it did so in ways that encouraged work and discouraged people from receiving this help any longer than they needed it. For example, they had work programs, in which people built roads, bridges, and Government Buildings, rather than simply handing out free money. The people who participated in this program had the dignity of hard work, they could take the money they earned with pride, and yet the money was not so good that they would want to keep these jobs any longer than they had to.

They also had a commodities program, in which the government gave surplus food to people who were hungry. One of these commodities was Spam. Now today, people think of e-mail when their hear the word Spam, but Spam is a food, which if you grew up eating it, you understand why the name came to be applied to unwanted junk mail, that comes in large quantities. Before microwaves, it was a quick and cheap meal. My father, who grew up during the Great Depression, could not stand the smell of it, because he had eaten enough of it to last a life time. These commodities kept people from starving, but there was no incentive to stay on that program any longer than necessary.

The problem with the Food Stamps is that it is too generous and too convenient. A family of four on food stamps, can receive about 400 dollars a month in Food Stamps (not to mention WIC, with which they can also buy dairy products), and with those stamps they can buy the choicest foods that one can find in a modern grocery store. What incentive do they have to get off this program? None. Now, for those who are elderly or disabled, I think the Food Stamps program is a good thing… the only problem is that these people often get very little in Food Stamps because their Social Security checks are counted against them. But for people who are able-bodied, I think we would better help them in the long run by giving them basic government commodities that would feed them, but not quite so thoroughly satisfy them as Food Stamps do.

There are food banks all over the country that already do something like this, and what is interesting is that I have often had people complain that their food stamp case was not being certified quickly enough, and that their kids would be eating dinner out trash cans, only to be told, when I referred them to a food bank, that they didn’t like food banks, because “They only give you can goods and bread.” Apparently the trash cans provide better fare.

My father was the hardest working man I ever knew, and I am convinced that he worked so hard all of his life in large part because he didn’t want to ever have to eat another can of Spam again. And while he never finished High School, he was making about $100 dollars an hour as an insulator when he retired, and his Spamophobia had the added benefit of him providing well for his children, and him having the dignity of having earned everything he had.

So I say, let them eat Spam. Let them eat so much of it, that they never want to smell it again. And then let them get a job, and buy their food in the grocery store the same way everyone else does… with money they have earned buy the sweat of their brow.