Congress, President Clinton, the nation's governors, and, most importantly, the American people have endorsed welfare reform. The idea is to reduce welfare dependency. But now that welfare dependency is falling, pro-welfare bureaucrats and politicians are contemplating measures to reverse the trend.
This reminds me of an old schoolyard rhyme: "Here we go loop de loop, here we go loop de la." Except in this case people's lives are at stake. It's time to break the loop.
A recent New York Times article demonstrates the problem. The number of people using food stamps has fallen by nearly one-third in the last four years, from 28 to 19 million. But rather than celebrate this fact, many government officials have responded with alarm. Indeed, they want to do a study to find out the causes of the drop in food stamp usage.
One official, Shirley R. Watkins, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, worries that "people may have failed to understand that the food stamp program is not a welfare program."
Food stamps is not a welfare program? What could better illustrate the fact that the welfare bureaucracy and its supporters are not only out of touch with national sentiment, but with reality itself?
True, the first federal food stamp program was intended to stabilize agricultural prices. Instead of letting crop surpluses go to waste, the federal government proposed to buy whatever farmers couldn't sell on the open market and make these goods available to the poor.
But the food stamp program long ago evolved from a simple distribution system for crop surpluses to a welfare entitlement program for low- and no-income earners. Today it provides a huge guaranteed market for processed foods.
And whereas the largest agribusiness food processors and retailers, such as Wisconsin's billionaire food magnate and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, are among the program's strongest backers, small farmers who initially reaped rewards from the program are increasingly food stamp eligible. But to get food stamps, they, along with every other eligible American, must apply to the welfare office.
So to say that the food stamp program is anything other than a welfare entitlement is simply dishonest. But the real question is why Watkins and other federal officials are so puzzled and worried about the decline in food stamp usage?
Rep. Nancy Johnson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee on Human Resources, agrees with Watkins that the federal government should study this decline. "We need to see why state systems don't seem to capture the food stamp eligible population very well," she told the Times.
Capture? Johnson's use of the word is a problem. Our goal as a nation should be to set poor people free of dependency, not to chase after them for incarceration in a kind of welfare zoo.
As a person with plenty of direct experience with the poor, I can assure Rep. Johnson and others that the poor know where the local welfare office is, and how to get on the food stamp program. And as a common sense citizen, I can suggest a couple of better reasons why food stamp usage has fallen than the presumption that the poor are stupid or incapable.
The number of food stamp recipients rose from about 19 million to an all-time high of 28 million from 1989 to 1994. Most welfare advocates attributed this increase to the economy.
Well, guess what? The economy since 1994 has been humming. More people are working today than at any time since the late 1980s. The unemployment rate in February was 4.4%, compared to 5.4% in February l989. One would expect food stamp usage to decline accordingly.
I would point as well to the passage of the federal welfare reform law in 1996, which let the states institute work-for-welfare requirements, giving welfare recipients added incentive to obtain private sector employment.
There are other reasons why people are turning their backs on food stamps. Participation in the food stamp program requires people to disclose information about their finances and personal lives that they might rather not. And remaining eligible often requires people to take off from their job for a day each month.
And why, unless absolutely necessary, would a person want to walk into a grocery store and pull out food stamps? Why would they subject themselves to a program that won't give them cash to purchase food because it presumes they can't be trusted?
For the same reasons that we as a nation have determined to pursue welfare reform — to decrease dependency and increase self-sufficiency and dignity among our fellow citizens — the government should refrain from chasing after poor people to find out why they are not using food stamps.