Mayor of “Food Stamp Town” Fights Back
Many of you will remember the Washington Post story about the food stamp “boom-and-bust cycle” of the troubled town of Woonsocket, RI. How did this town become so dependent, and what that means for other communities around the country?
One thing you’ll notice is that the mayor’s voice was completely absent from the Washington Post piece. Instead, the Post described an influx of food stamp payments to “the broke residents of a nearly bankrupt town,” payments that have “helped Woonsocket survive.” A record number of Americans are now on food stamps, as are one-third of Woonsocket’s residents. For some in Woonsocket, the first of the month has turned into a celebration of sorts, because of the food stamp surge that day.
One local shop owner, in fact, calls the first of the month “Uncle Sam Day.” His shop makes 25 percent of its monthly profit on Uncle Sam Day.
Woonsocket’s mayor, Leo Fontaine, believes that “entitlement programs often provide more incentive to stay on the program than to get off.” The Mayor shared the story of a town that used to live the American dream, but has been dragged down by a combination of outsourcing and aggressive government promotion of dependence.
A Vicious Cycle of Outsourcing, Lower Class Growth, and State Dependence
The mayor claims that the vicious cycle set in motion by outsourcing left houses empty where working people used to live. These vacancies spurred an influx of the type of people attracted by government-subsidized housing, who then went on to be heavily reliant on the state.
As the mayor points out, this was not always the town’s fate. Mayor Fontaine pointed out that “[c]ities like Woonsocket were once the leading force in the industrial engine of our country.” “Many in our city, including myself, know the stories of their parents and grandparents toiling in the mills, working tirelessly to provide a better life for their families,” he tells. Outsourcing, however, spurred a chain of events that would drastically alter the character of the town:
As increasing labor costs and government policies drove these companies away; first south and then overseas, we, like similar communities, were left with an inordinate number of apartment houses that once housed the thousands of workers of these factories and their families. The ample supply of “affordable housing” has attracted an influx of population who statistically are more dependent on government programs.
The cycle was spurred on by the federal government, which created more public housing, drawing in more dependents and more state services. This has led to what Fontaine describes as a perverse, inverted relationship between real economic growth and government welfare spending. “[C]ities such as ours have seen far more growth in the non-profit social service sector as opposed to private sector jobs,” he said. “Most of this is supported and in many cases required by federal and state agencies,” the Mayor noted.
Recent years have seen this cycle thrown into overdrive. The mayor sees a direct connection between federal policy and the troubles of dependency. “[I]t’s really no surprise that urban communities such as Woonsocket are seeing the levels that we have,” especially “when you consider that the government is spending a great deal of money to make more people aware of the program and thus expanding its growth even further.” Most troubling of all, for the man committed to leading the town, is the connection between dependence and the lack of job creation. “Recent statistics at the national level show that the rate of growth in the SNAP program is 75% higher than job growth for the same period,” the mayor pointed out. Because the level of dependence is outpacing rates of job growth, the Mayor sees the deeply disturbing “new normal” of state growth and private-sector anemia: “One would think that with recent announcements of job growth by the Obama administration you would see a corresponding reduction in the SNAP program, but in fact the exact opposite is true.”
Waste, Fraud, and Abuse Top Off the Economic Decline
While the mayor acknowledged the need to give truly disadvantaged people support “until they can get back on their feet,” issues of “waste and fraud” loom large. He described a recent Rhode Island state report which “detailed significant SNAP abuse exposing benefits going to the deceased as well as prisoners in our jails.”
In Rhode Island, cities and towns may report fraud and abuse to state authorities, but can only hope that those authorities will follow through.
The mayor advocates for cutting back on waste and fraud, and instead directing funds to more constructive policies of job development. The government, however, has different priorities. “Unfortunately, as funding has dramatically increased in programs such as SNAP, we have seen actual reductions in other necessary programs such as those programs serving our veterans.”
Meanwhile, the spending goes on, and the same causes continue to have the same effects. “We like most cities have very little control over these programs but are forced to deal with the fallout on a daily basis,” the mayor said.
Corporate America Celebrates “Uncle Sam Day”
While the mayor deals with the consequences of state dependence, corporate America has insinuated itself into Uncle Sam Day. For instance, restaurants have traditionally been denied the use of food stamps, but the Post reported that a “major lobbying campaign in Washington” has resulted in a pilot program whereby Subway fast food restaurants are allowed to accept food stamps.
Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon has remarked on the unique “environment” created by food stamps. He speaks of the business community’s “responsibility to figure out how to sell in that environment” and to “figure out how to deal with what is an ever-increasing amount of transactions being paid for with government assistance.”
A Last Resort Becomes A Way of Life
Food stamp usage has grown into areas many Americans would have never thought possible. Hipsters, described in a Salon.com article, are using food stamps to buy “soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream” along with “roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes.” The federal government is praising rural bureaucrats for “counteracting” what they call “mountain pride,” which means refusal to rely on the state. The federal government is also using taxpayer money to advertise American food stamps inside Mexico.
With the dramatic increase in food stamp use, the dependency trap ensnares larger segments of the population, in towns like Woonsocket.
Mayor Fontaine reluctantly notes, “it’s fair to say that many could provide for themselves if they made the effort.” His observation is not, of course, an indictment of the entire town. The Washington Post could have picked any urban community, in any state in the country, and found widespread food stamp use. The Post could have scrutinized the nation’s capital. “If the Washington Post wanted to do a story on SNAP dependency all they need to do was look outside their own window as D.C. has many of the same issues and more,” Fontaine said.
Breaking Out Of the Dependency Trap
I asked Fontaine if he had any idea how many people in Woonsocket would remain on food stamps, even after they no longer genuinely need them. His response reflected a big-picture approach:
“I think that this issue is far greater than just our city. It really gets down to the whole issue of entitlements and human nature. Unfortunately, entitlement programs often provide more incentive to stay on the program than to get off.”
He sympathizes with people who have fallen on hard times, yet recognizes that the government provides a perverse incentive to get on benefits and remain dependent. “As jobs become more and more difficult to come by, you can almost begin to understand why some would rather drop into the comfort of the government safety net than to continue the ongoing struggle for self sufficiency.”
There is empirical data to support that assessment. Research by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation shows that “half of food stamp aid to families with children has gone to families that have received aid for 8.5 years or more.” Receiving aid for 8.5 years is inconsistent with a short-term assistance strategy. Given the set of incentives created by food stamps, it is predictable that dependence will be the norm in all but unusual cases.
Citizens get locked into the cycle of dependency, and the government is locked in to providing the incentive. The mayor observed, with the government “spending too much time and money on programs of dependency, they often forget that there is an alternative.” That alternative is practical: “I think that more effort should be put into creating an economic environment that allows for job growth and self sufficiency,” Fontaine said.
The mayor’s remarks reveal an entirely different side of the troubled town than that presented by the Washington Post; one where people still believe in the value of self-reliance, but sometimes lack the economic opportunities to make self reliance viable. In this stagnant economy, an aggressive welfare state is getting the best of men and women.
With no stigma, and no restrictions, Food Stamp use seems certain to grow, along with grave concerns about welfare’s effect on the character of those who become dependent. A town like Woonsocket, with a proud heritage of honest labor and hard work, deserves far better.
John T. Bennett has a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago, where he researched lower-class culture and social policy. He is also a former Army officer and veteran, with tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Djibouti, Africa. His writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Townhall.com, World Net Daily, and American Thinker, among others.