Wednesday, October 19, 2011


This is a full comment on Owen Courreges' Louisiana Purchase op-ed over at Uptown Messenger. I left an abbreviated comment over there, but I had a lot more to say:

Combating poverty is very difficult, from a policy standpoint.

Thing about it is, SNAP benefits aren't designed to "combat poverty," at least in an immediate sense. They are designed so less Americans go hungry, and if that's the bar that is set, it is a very, very effective program. I remember the mile-long line of people waiting outside the Convention Center to sign up for temporary benefits in 2008, because all the hourly-wage workers couldn't work for a week because of the Gustav evacuation.

Plenty of those folks still had $10 in their pocket, or cigarettes in their purses, or beer in a cooler back at the house. But they needed those benefits because - while you can get cigarettes and beer for $10 - you can't feed a family for a week.

That being said, it is infuriating to see individuals who appear to be gaming the system or taking any advantage of any government program designed so that children, senior citizens, the disabled, and able bodied adults down on their luck can continue to eat. When you see anyone cutting corners, it can be maddening from an emotional standpoint, even if you know the program mostly helps people that desperately need it.

Hell, it doesn't matter if you're in a room watching a program actually helping 99% hungry kids and the elderly right in front of you, your eyes will track the 1% of able-bodied adults cutting in line to go back for seconds or loading up their plates and throwing a lot away. And you'll see red about it, and question what good the program is really doing. You'll question the effectiveness of the program, even if it is obviously working, because a few folks can get away with something.

And, yeah, you want to shame them for it. That's natural. "Hey, buddy, why don't you let Miss Elderly Lady have first crack at those potatoes?" "Why did you just throw half a plate of rice and beans in the trash?" In the same vein, you wonder how many more kids $10 could feed, instead of buying beer and cigarettes.

Thing is, anything we do is going to have corner-cutters and folks taking advantage somewhere along the line. Any organization or program is going to run into pathologies present in human nature. Not that we shouldn't try to stop fraud, but we have to have perspective on where fraud really exists, and how much extra cost we put on the tab to ensure more strict compliance.

In this case, I don't consider someone buying beer or cigarettes with pocket money - while using their SNAP benefits to buy food - to be a major drain on the program, even as I understand how the visuals are terrible if it takes place right in front of you. I understand the gut reaction that rejects such behavior. I've been in a similar place more than once.

Luckily, I have the luxury of being removed from that situation right now, so I can look at things with a greater perspective. Despite that immediate and natural reaction of "how dare they," people have to look past that and think about how many people are actually eating tonight specifically because of a program. How many people wouldn't eat if we ended the program to end the fraud, or put so many obstacles on the program to prevent fraud that it didn't work? Those are the important things to ask.

Perspective is always important. There far are bigger drains on the public dollar than a $10 purchase of cigarettes and beer, and I don't believe in the Welfare Cadillac Queen fairy tale.


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