“ARE THERE NO PRISONS?” asks Scrooge, annoyed that the local do-gooders have dared asked him for a contribution to assist the poor. He’s a self-made man who earned what he has by his labor and a little extra by underpaying and overworking his clerk.
For anyone who doesn’t know Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” here’s a spoiler alert: It has a happy ending, though this required wishful thinking by Dickens. A century-and-a-half later there are still heartwarming stories of generosity and good deeds by rich people. But the poor, well, some will get lucky and find work that gives them a better, more stable lifestyle. The rest will have to depend on help from the government in one form or another, or go without.
Last week, just in time for the holidays, we got another look at what that means in practical terms when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced a change in the federal food stamp program that the government says will cut off benefits to as many as 700,000 Americans.
Food stamps, now known as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits), subsidize food purchases for people whose income is so low they can’t afford to eat a healthy diet without this aid. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, says that there are hundreds of thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents who are mooching off this program. The government says these people should be working, training to get a job or volunteering.
That sounds reasonable as long as you believe it’s easy to find a job that pays enough to feed you no matter where or how you live.
U.S. Census estimates compiled two years ago found that 6,806 people in Columbia County live below the poverty level. That’s 11% of the county’s population. Men and women are about equally likely to live with incomes below the poverty line. County residents who are black are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as white residents. It’s not hard to see why not only these folks, but also people whose annual income is above the poverty line –$12,490 for a single person–need SNAP benefits.
The data tell us that a significant number of our neighbors might be affected by cuts in food assistance promised by the Department of Agriculture.
We don’t yet know exactly how many or which people will be most affected by the new cuts. But we do know that the assault on SNAP could have an even greater impact than previously announced. One of them is a proposed rule that would reduce something called the “standard utility allowance” (SUA). The SUA allows a family to deduct utility costs when calculating the family’s income for purposes of food-aide eligibility. It’s colder in the Northeast than in other parts of the country, so families here can deduct more and qualify for a fair share of benefits.
Not anymore if the proposed rules take effect. The Urban Institute found that New York would lose 11% of its SNAP benefits. The funding decrease would reach 17% if all the proposed SNAP cuts take effect a few months from now.
These changes in SNAP aide eligibility are not about the lofty goal of convincing people to go to work under threat of starvation. Nor are they likely to reform this large government program, though undoubtedly SNAP could function more efficiently. This is about bullying people who have no voice, who may be homeless, car-less and without much hope.
It’s about branding poor people as the enemy, as if poor people got huge tax breaks or poisoned our communities with addictive drugs and toxic waste, as if poor people profited from wars that the generals and their political leaders knew we could never win.
It was no miscalculation, no accident that the administration’s publicity apparatus geared up for this latest punishment of the poor in the weeks before Christmas. It was not carelessness that the Department of Agriculture neglected to mention that one of the original reasons behind food stamps was to benefit farmers. There’s no need anymore to find common ground between people who need food and the farmers who grow it. Forget the people crushed by poverty. Pay the farmers and move on.
The secretary of agriculture and his boss should scrap this rule change and pick on somebody their own size. The House of Representatives should do what it can to make that happen.
Keeping in mind the question posed by Scrooge.
There are all kinds of prisons, including poverty and hunger.