Starving the American Dream

Abraham Lincoln famously stated that “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”  How remarkable that this quote may resonate more today more than any other time in American history and how ironic it comes from the founder of the political party currently set to evade their sacred responsibility to lead this nation.

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I have rarely spoken out on political issues from a partisan perspective.  I have always maintained that as a nation, we are better than our ideological partisan trenches.  It wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat that landed on the moon – it was an American.  Americans responded united to Pearl Harbor.  Our past is full of leaders who have advocated for what was best for America- not that which was best for their person or their party.  Lincoln didn’t stand against slavery as a Republican and Thomas Jefferson didn’t author our Constitution with partisan perspectives.

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If this Congress was in power in 1941, I am absolutely convinced they had Roosevelt demonstrate how we would fund the war against Germany and Japan with spending cuts.

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Thankfully, we actually had inspired leadership who put America first and only together we overcame a depression and a world war.

Today, we have Congressional leadership basing their philosophical and partisan approach to governing our nation on the principle that we must be more fiscally responsible to reduce the burden on future generations.  As part of this over-arching concern, they argue our government programs are enabling fraud and that we are simply empowering dependency upon public assistance programs; thus people who should be working are dissuaded from working by the public benefit.  This last point is referenced quite often specifically as the number of Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) has grown to approximately 47 million Americans.  I believe Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer sums this ideological position rather clearly, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

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Let’s start with the first argument that it’s in the best interest of future generations to reduce the SNAP benefit.  First, unlike any other government program today, SNAP provides an economic benefit return of $1.70 in economic development to every dollar allocated.   If I was a representative of a political party with an interest in advocating and supporting the business community; I would naturally support those programs that actually help business. Investing in SNAP directly supports agriculture, supply chain logistics, manufacturing, energy, and retail sectors directly since it employs farmers, truck drivers, bankers, IT employees, government contractors, government employees, food industry employees, and grocery store clerks. In other words, SNAP creates jobs but creating jobs means the other guys across the aisle may get points for a better economy.

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But the real financial harm isn’t simply around job creation; it’s the long term impact on our country.  The irony is not to be missed here. We have leaders who are advocating that cutting SNAP is in the name of saving the future deficit for future generations.  This is seductive until you realize the long term financial consequences of a hungry populace are far more devastating to our national capabilities and exponentially more expensive.  Hungry infants don’t develop in the right way, leading to chronic and expensive health issues. Hungry kids don’t learn well.  Uneducated kids grow usually up to be unproductive adults. Hungry people simply don’t perform well in life.  Hungry people have a higher chance for obesity.  The bottom line and inconvenient truth is that hunger harms our national security, our industrial competitiveness, and our children’s future.  The fact is that our long term economic, national security and global competitiveness is directly tied to our ability to effectively ensure our people are fed.

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While it is convenient to believe that SNAP recipients are receiving cash they can spend on lottery tickets, strippers, and cigarettes; the fact is the SNAP program has strict controls with a national fraud and error rate is approximately 3.08%. There is simply no argument for wasteful spending or fraud as a reason to reduce the SNAP program.  The outrage from Congressional leaders about SNAP fraud is completely misplaced and frankly hypocritical given the lack of oversight on corporate welfare programs in this country. Keep in mind the average SNAP benefit for a household is approximately $130/month.  Any notion that SNAP is a luxury can be easily verified by having your family live on this allocation for a month.  However since the average representative Congress is a millionaire and is literally dining on a daily basis with special interest groups – it is unlikely we can help them understand what is happening with their constituents they are actually supposed to be representing.

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But let’s address the issue about the growing population of SNAP dependent lazy people. The argument is compelling and sells like water in the Sahara. If you reduce SNAP, this will surely motivate people back to work.  The problem with this argument is that 83% of all households receiving SNAP include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person – people who may not be able to work.  More importantly, the majority of these households already have working adults. In addition, SNAP already has a requirement that an able-bodied adult can only be on SNAP for 90 days.  The program is designed to be a safety net for our most vulnerable populations and is frankly not even meeting this critical need.  SNAP can actually be a bootstrap for these individuals to pull themselves out of poverty, especially the children. I believe no child should be hungry and I certainly would rather help feed them now so I don’t have to pay much more for them when they are in prison or dealing with chronic health issues.  I am all for programs that incentivize work but also believe no working family in this country should be hungry.  I simply don’t consider it a family value that working families starve.

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Maybe my Norman Rockwell view of our country is flawed but we need leadership that actually is courageous enough to even talk about what’s really happening in this country.  The real question our national leadership should be asking is “Why is the population of SNAP recipients increasing?”  Now that is a question worth discussing but it’s much easier to evade this question.  It’s better to convince the American people that policies should be passed that literally will make people in this country starve.   It’s much better to score points on ideological talking points than really put the best interest of our country first.  It’s become acceptable to be intellectually lazy by simply ignoring harm from flawed public policy. And let’s be clear, the policies that are being supported are simply treasonous to our long term future.  They not only completely crucify our poorest and most vulnerable in this country; they will directly compromise our national security, our economy and our longer term ability to be relevant in this global economy.  Reagan always described America as a “shining city on a hill” but I have a hard time believing that city would be governed by short-sighted, ruthless leadership focused on partisan and ill-conceived ideology eventually that will lead to that city’s eventual destruction.  Since I started with Lincoln, let me conclude with Proverbs, since strong Christian sentiment has always been leveraged for personal political gain in this country: “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”   So true – but unfortunately it won’t be those alone passing policies who will be cursed, but all of us as Americans.

Written by William Browning, edited by Kathy Underhill and Hilary Gustave, illustrations by Freedom House Productions.

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2 Responses to “Starving the American Dream”

  1. Brad November 15, 2013 12:04 pm
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    Just curious about citations for the $1.70 in economic development for every $1 in SNAP distributed, and the 83% of SNAP receiving households include children/elderly/disabled. Those are convincing points, and I’d like to be able to cite them in future conversations or presentations.