Viewpoint: Timely reminder: America’s social safety net is a hand-up, not hand-out

Karen Rubin

Just in time for Christmas, Trump declared his administration would issue a rule to take away states’ discretion in issuing waivers and force more Americans to hold jobs if they want to continue to receive food stamps, impacting some 755,000 people through executive power what Congressional Republicans could not in the $870 billion farm bill.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who along with Sen. Chuck Grassley lavishes in agricultural subsidies contained in the farm bill, declared Trump was restoring the “dignity” of hungry people by taking away food stamps. On the other hand, the $12 billion Trump has already awarded (bought off) farmers with $12 billion to mitigate the impacts of his trade wars is dignified.

“SNAP, our nation’s biggest and most effective anti-hunger program, serves 45 million people living below the poverty line, around half of whom are children.

Most adults who receive SNAP are already working,” writes Heidi Hess, co-director of CREDO Action from Working Assets. “The harsh, onerous and ineffective work requirements that are currently forced on to SNAP recipients are one of those policy ideas dreamed up by lazy conservatives with small hearts and too little sense.

Repeated studies have found no good evidence that SNAP disincentivizes work or that work requirements lift people out of poverty… Right now, states with high unemployment can waive the work requirements. But treating people living in poverty with respect is too much for Republicans.”

It is important to recognize, as the economy begins to soften (likely exacerbated into full-blown recession because of Trump’s disastrous policies that will trigger a new wave of unemployment), that food stamps also bolster neighborhood economies: every $1 in food stamps has a $3 impact on local communities, while reducing the need for taxpayer money to go to remedial support for hungry school children.

Perdue’s statement echoed the view of OMB Director Mike Mulvaney, Trump’s incoming “acting” chief of staff, when he announced Trump’s “America First” budget that slashed the social safety net to do needy people a favor by restoring their dignity, while at the same time justifying bloating the military budget.

The underlying theory is that people who are poor or in dire straits brought it about themselves and deserve the consequences, and that help such as food stamps or Medicaid is a reward for slovenly behavior.

It goes back to the Calvinist philosophy that the rich are rich because they are in God’s good graces, and the poor are poor because they are not. But the rich can continue to deserve their place in heaven by once a year, during Christmas, extending charity to the destitute, erasing all the sins they commit during the year that institutionalize poverty, like the Republican tax scam, signed exactly a year ago. That Calvinist philosophy is still in play.

Trump’s administration has also tied the ability to get Medicaid to work, the logic of which is truly out of Dickens “A Christmas Carol”: people go on Medicaid because they are too sick to work and therefore lose access to health insurance and can’t afford it on their own because they aren’t able to work or if employers pay less than a living wage.

Similarly, young mothers are required to work in order to get benefits, but either there is no childcare available (51 percent of Americans live in “child care deserts”) or it is too expensive, costing more than take-home pay.

Whether health care is a right, not a privilege — and maligning universal health care as some kind of socialist/communist plot against liberty-loving Americans — is at some level about political repression and voter suppression.

A person who is sick, in pain or suffering, isn’t marching in protests; a person who has to choose between paying for life-saving drugs or paying for food or rent isn’t in a position to donate to politicians, so has no influence in policy, and if unable to physically to stand on line for hours to cast a ballot? Tough.

They see such things as food stamps, health care, child care, unemployment benefits as a hand-out instead of a hand-up to enable individuals to live fulfilling lives, take advantage of their full potential and make a full contribution (more taxes) to society.

At the recent Vision Long Island “Smart Growth Summit,” there was a fascinating panel on the importance of a regional approach to economic development. Among the Interesting points: our region has prospered — in fact, New York state has the lowest unemployment rate in history — despite an aggressive policy to transition to clean energy, despite the taxes that everyone complains about (and are not, in fact, highest in the country), despite policies that welcome and support immigrants.

But, “Long Island’s full economy could have been $24 billion stronger in 2014 if racial income gaps were eliminated,” Sol Marie Alfonso-Jones of Long Island Community Foundation noted. “2030 is the year when the majority of young workers will be people of color, yet racial and income inequality on Long Island is huge and persistent.”

And much more pervasive than most of us realize: A Long Island family of four needs an income of $140,000 to make ends meet, but the current federal poverty threshold is $25,000. The result is that 300,000 Long Islanders (out of a population of three million) obtain assistance from Island Harvest — that’s one-in-10 of our neighbors who live with food insecurity.

“Long Island’s new growth model must be driven by equity, just and fair inclusion, the need to make sure we have policies and access to opportunities where everyone can reach their potential,” Alfonso-Jones said.

Indeed, that should be the message of this “glad tidings, good will to men” season: that rather than the zero-sum transactional winner-take-all mentality of Trumpism, a rising tide, in fact, lifts all boats, and benefits all of us.

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