CHARLIE MITCHELL: Food stamp debacle needs repairs, not rhetoric

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – “Obama is the best food stamp president in American history.” … “I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history.”
That was the money line for Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, where his campaign was energized by his first primary win.
On closer examination, however, the Republican was doing the same thing Democrats do. Regardless of party, candidates play to emotion, fuel suspicions and jealousies among voters. They offer rhetoric instead of roadmaps.
Just as predictably, Gingrich’s comments caused “analysts” to wring their hands and beat their chests over whether the former speaker of the U.S. House had made a racist statement. After all, a white man from Georgia accusing a black man from Illinois of favoring welfare over work fits the usual scripts. Plus, racism is an easy, obvious and emotional topic, which translates to low production costs and high ratings for the talking heads paid to fret endlessly on the airwaves about the national condition.
If anyone actually cared to examine the substance of the matter, the food stamp situation is, in fact, out of control. It’s especially problematic in Mississippi where, yes, a new tally shows the state No. 1 in the proportion of residents enrolled. The program now goes by SNAP, for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
One Mississippian in five – a total of 600,000 individuals – relies on an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card for all or part of their daily bread. In Humphreys County, the proportion is the largest. In a county that not too long ago struggled to keep up with demand as the Catfish Capital of the World, 47 percent of the residents depend on other citizens to feed them.
The situation has nothing to do with race. A myth as old as assistance programs is that minorities compose the majority of people on the dole. It wasn’t true a century ago. It isn’t true today.
It also can’t all be attributed to a sluggish economy, as some want to do. Food aid has increase during boom times, too. Just not as rapidly.
The people most aggrieved by explosive growth in public assistance programs of all types – free school meals, unemployment checks, day care, direct welfare, Medicaid, housing, utilities and even free cell phones – are those struggling to stay above the eligibility limits. In what’s left of America’s middle class, mothers and fathers are busting their backs at two or three jobs. It’s not wrong for them to be outraged that people who choose not to work can take a child to a doctor for an earache, while their choice is to hope a home remedy will work or the light bill will go unpaid. They’re not wrong to feel anger when they see a woman with a $75 manicure swipe her EBT card and leave the grocery with a cart full of expensive convenience foods.
Public assistance programs were begun on the assumption people would always choose to do better. Millions have used them as a bridge to better times. But the reality is that legions are also willing to accept a subsistence life if it means avoiding the hassles associated with having a job. These are the entrenched and professional poor. Fraud, through multiple identities and many other methods, is rampant. There are takers in society who have no intention of changing.
So cut them off? Not hardly.
The giveaways are so large that the private economy heavily depends on people spending their public benefits. States such as California now load EBT cards with all kinds of cash. Recipients can use benefit cards to pay rent, utilities, for babysitters so they can go to the movie, exercise classes, eat at Burger King and much more.
In California or in Mississippi, if suddenly only the truly and desperately needy received food stamps, thousands of private sector jobs would be lost. The irony of the situation is that “free money” for some now keeps paychecks coming for others.
It doesn’t take a scholar to realize that commerce requires a balance between production and consumption. A farm family that eats a little of its seed corn at first, then more and more year after year, will eventually starve. That’s the path we’re on.
Newt Gingrich and others can make it sound easy – and can lure in millions of voters – with broad gestures, accusations and by implying there’s a fast and easy fix.
If Mississippi and America don’t get their dole rolls under control, disaster does loom. That’s a fact. Fostering false images and pitting people against each other doesn’t have to be part of the process. It’s simple arithmetic.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.