May 28, 2014 9:54:07 AM
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the use of food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), has revealed an interesting paradox in Lowndes County.
The study shows, as of 2011, the median income in Lowndes County, adjusted for inflation, was slightly higher than the state average -- $39,984 to $38,283. Yet, the percentage of residents receiving SNAP benefits in the county was 22.7 percent, slightly higher than the state average of 21.8 percent.
Regardless of your opinion on whether the nation's food stamp program is a vital program that should be sustained and strengthened or a failed, wasteful program that reduces recipients to economic dependence on taxpayers, it is clear that any changes to the program will have a direct impact here.
This year, Congress passed a Farm Bill that will reduce SNAP benefits by $8 billion over the next 10 years. Incidentally, Sen. Thad Cochran was co-sponsor of the bill. His opponent in the June 3 Republican primary, state senator Chris McDaniel, has been a vocal proponent of cutting the food stamp program.
The effects of such cuts will be acutely felt in our community.
Ever since the food stamp program was enacted nationally in the 1970s, conservatives have worked diligently to demonize it and those who benefit from it. We regularly hear anecdotal evidence of the abuse of the program that generally falls into the category of "I saw a woman buying steaks and lobsters in the checkout lane at the grocery store and she paid for it with food stamps!"
How this constitutes an abuse of the system is hard to figure, once you get beyond the "why do they get to buy steaks while I can only afford ground beef?" outrage.
After all, it's not as though the person who chooses to buy steaks with food stamps has an unlimited access to the benefits. If a person gets $100 in food stamps, it's up to them to make the choices. Once those funds are gone, they're gone. Whether they choose wisely has no real impact on the taxpayer, aside from ruffling some feathers.
Of course, this attitude has been around far longer than the food stamp program.
Eighteenth Century British essayist Samuel Johnson noted the same attitude.
"What signifies, says someone, giving halfpence to beggars? They only lay it out in gin or tobacco." Johnson observed. "It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to shew even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths."
So it is today, of course.
Yet if we can get beyond the misplaced outrage, we must acknowledge there the benefits of the program for those who need it far outweigh the perceived abuses.
On a practical level, the USDA report shows benefits that go beyond those directly involved in the food stamp program.
First, SNAP benefits circulate in the local economy very quickly, something that every food retailer will quickly affirm. Grocery stories see a definite spike in sales when the monthly SNAP benefits are loaded onto EBT cards.
The USDA estimates that each $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9.20 in spending. Take away the food stamps program and people will suffer -- and that suffering will not be limited to recipients.
None of that is to suggest that it is a good thing that more than two in 10 Lowndes County residents have to rely on SNAP benefits to keep their families fed.
But it does strongly indicate that any changes to the SNAP program should carefully deliberated. As we have noted, there are unintended consequences associated with these changes.
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