A brush with dependency

There is much conversation about dependency in the wake of Mitt Romney???s ???47 percent??? video, in which he answered a question about political strategy by discussing the difficulty of getting his pro-growth message people who are dependent upon government.  We were already having this discussion, and we???ll keep having it no matter who wins in November, but it definitely heated up over the past week.

The explosive growth of Food Stamp Nation has been a matter of particular interest for me.  Food stamps are among the most obvious symbols of growing government dependency.  Less than 10 percent of the American population was on food stamps at the beginning of the late-2000s recession; now it???s up to 15 percent, a very unusual trend when coming out of a recession.  31 million people used food stamp benefits in 2008; 47 million use them today.

That???s a stunning increase, and it is largely in response to changing government policies.  The Manhattan Institute concluded in a recent study that ???the prolonged unemployment effects of the 2007???09 recession are partly responsible for the growth in current food stamp usage, but cannot fully explain it.  More likely, increased eligibility, income deductions, and benefit levels have precipitated unprecedented growth in the program.???

One of those ???increased eligibility??? revisions was President Obama???s suspension of the time limit that able-bodied adults with no dependents could remain on food stamps.  He killed the work requirements for this form of welfare a long time ago ??? in his 2009 ???stimulus??? bill, to be exact.  There used to be a three-month limit within any given 3-year period, but Obama suspended it.  Congress put it back in late 2010, but then Obama started handing out waivers to states with high unemployment rates.  The result was dramatic: the number of able-bodied adults collecting food stamps literally doubled from 1.9 million in 2008 to 3.9 million in 2010, according to a Congressional Research Service report cited by the Daily Caller.

But those 3.9 million single, able-bodied adults are just a small part of Food Stamp Nation.  The 31 million recipients in 2008 represented a 17 percent increase over the prior year, which was considered a disturbing trend at the time.  Obama???s policies, including the high unemployment characteristic of his Administration, have made this problem worse, but he didn???t create it.

The magnitude of the food stamp numbers isn???t the only reason the subject fascinates me.  It???s personal.  My family came close to signing up for food stamp benefits, when I was a teenager in the Eighties.  I???ve thought about that moment many times in the years since then.  It profoundly influenced my view of the world.

Ours was a simple enough story: a single mom raising two kids, who had trouble making ends meet.  I was the elder sibling, just old enough to begin looking for my first job, but it was hard to find one, because transportation was a big problem.  There came a day when my mother said it was time for us to travel downtown and sign up for food stamp benefits.  She wanted me to come with her, for both moral support and assistance with the paperwork.  There was little doubt that we were well past the point of qualifying for the program.

My mom was a child of the Depression.  She thought going on public welfare was a sign of personal defeat.  She didn???t have the slightest bit of contempt for anyone who needed such assistance ??? she was charitable and compassionate to a fault.  She just didn???t want to be one of them.  She didn???t want to concede that she needed government benefits to take care of her kids.

We sat in the car for a while, because she just couldn???t bring herself to turn the key and begin the journey downtown.  I don???t remember which one of us first made the suggestion that we could put it off just a little while longer.  We ended up going to a pawn shop and sold off some old stuff instead.

A couple of weeks later, I got that first job I???d been looking for.  I was asked to work a couple of hours of overtime washing dishes on my very first day.  Mom was my ride home, so I thought she???d be mad when I told her I needed to work late, but instead she was proud of me for earning those extra hours of work.  We pulled out of our tough times, and never got any food stamps after all.

I???ve often returned to my memories of that day, and my mom with her hand on the ignition of her car, not quite able to make herself turn it over.  There really would have been nothing wrong with getting a little help.  I???ve never looked down on people who truly needed it.  A lot of them are hard-working families who have no intention of using the social safety net as a hammock.  I don???t look down on destitute people who need more extensive charity, either.  I???ve freely given it, and worked for it, myself.  I sensed only dignity, respect, and brotherly love on those occasions.

But this is what has bothered me for the past thirty years: if we had gotten onto the food stamp rolls, would we have been able to get off?  How long would it have been before we became willing to do without that ???free food????  Would we have been more likely to begin taking it for granted as a regular feature of life, and adjusted our other spending habits accordingly?

Eventually we would have no longer qualified for the benefits, of course.  How far up the income ladder do you have to climb before losing those government benefits doesn???t hurt, and prompt feelings of resentment?  How much independence do you have to regain, before talk of reducing your benefits doesn???t sound like the ???theft??? of something you???re ???entitled??? to?

This is the question that flares up in the back of my mind, every time I read another story about the growth of Food Stamp Nation.  This is what bothers me about the fact that they???re not even ???food stamps??? any more ??? they???re credit cards.  And the program has been renamed to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  It???s a ???supplement??? with a catchy acronym that sounds active and lively.  Like every other aspect of government dependency, it???s been woven smoothly into the fabric of American life, with no sense of ???charity??? being rendered, or obligations for repayment placed upon the recipients.  And a lot of it doesn???t seem like it???s meant to be short-term, or exclusive to only the most desperate among us.

Dependency is not the same thing as helplessness.  It???s a grievous mistake to think of the situation as a division between inert parasites and the harried working people whose ???contributions??? sustain every aspect of their lives.  Dependency is far more insidious, which is why it keeps getting worse… and harder to discuss honestly.