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“Where Is The Love?”: Compassion Isn’t A Sign Of Weakness, But A Mark Of Civilization

When I’ve written recently about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates, I’ve had plenty of pushback from readers.

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.

Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”

Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I get on my blog and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.

A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

So, on Thanksgiving, maybe we need a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.

But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.

Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.

All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.

For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.

Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.

And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 27, 2013

November 28, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, SNAP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Republicans’ Food Stamp Fraud”: Telling Poor Children The Fourth Box Of Macaroni And Cheese Is Excessive Is Indecent

What’s the single worst thing the Obama-era Republicans have done? Tough one, I know.

But spare me a moment here—plus a thousand words down the page—and I think maybe you’ll agree with me that the single worst thing the Obama-era Republicans have done is try to push through a $40 billion cut to the food-stamps program. It’s just unspeakably cruel. They usually say publicly that it’s about saving money. But sometimes someone—one congressman in particular—lets slip the real reason: They want to punish poor people. The farm bill, which includes the food-stamp program, goes to conference committee next week. That’s where, the cliché has it, the two sides are supposed to “iron out their differences.” The only thing the Democrats on this committee should do with an iron is run it across the Republicans’ scowling faces.

The basic facts on the program. Its size fluctuates with the economy—when more people are working, the number of those on food stamps goes down. This, of course, isn’t one of those times. So right now the SNAP program, as it’s called, is serving nearly 48 million people in 23 million households. The average monthly individual benefit is $133, or about $4.50 a day. In 2011, 45 percent of recipients were children. Forty-one percent live in households where at least one person works. More than 900,000 are veterans. Large numbers are elderly or disabled or both.

It’s costing about $80 billion a year. Senate Democrats proposed a cut to the program. A small cut, but a cut all the same: $4 billion over 10 years. The Republicans in the House sought a cut of $20.5 billion over 10 years. But then the farm bill failed to pass. Remember that? When John Boehner didn’t have enough votes to pass his own bill?  After that debacle, the House took the farm bill and split it into two parts—the subsidies for the large growers of rice and cotton and so forth, and the food-stamp program. Two separate bills. And this time, Eric Cantor doubled the cut: $40 billion over 10 years. This number, if it became law, would boot 3.8 million people—presumably, nearly half of them children—off the program in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

These would come on top of cuts to the program that kick in Nov. 1. The 2009 stimulus bill included extra food-stamp money because unemployment was so high after the financial meltdown that legislators knew more people would be applying for SNAP assistance. So there was a “stimulus bump” in food-stamp spending, but that is now ending. A family of four would see a $46 cut each month.

The proposed GOP cut is such a piddling amount of money, in terms of the whole federal budget and especially when spread out over 10 years. But nearly half of it is quite literally taking food out of the mouths of children. What’s the point? The point really is that Tea Party Republicans think these people don’t deserve the help. That’s some fascinating logic. The economy melts down because of something a bunch of crooked bankers do. The people at the bottom quarter of the economy, who’ve been getting jobbed for 30 years anyway and who always suffer the most in a downturn, start getting laid off in huge numbers. They have children to feed. Probably with no small amount of shame, they go in and sign up for food stamps.

And what do they get? Lectures about being lazy. You may have seen the now-infamous video of Tennessee Congressman Steve Fincher, who told a crowd over the summer that “the Bible says ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat.’” This while Fincher, a cotton farmer, has enjoyed $3.5 million in federal farm subsidies. This year’s House bill ends “direct payments” to farmers whether they grow any crops or not—except for one kind: cotton farmers.

Religious bloggers have noted that Fincher got his theology wrong and that the relevant passage, from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, wasn’t remotely about punishing people too lazy to work. It was about punishing people who’d stopped working because they thought Jesus was returning any day now. So: mean bastard, hypocrite, and Scripture-mangling idiot to boot. Nice trifecta.

The other argument one sometimes hears concerns the dreadful curse of food-stamp fraud. The actual rate of food-stamp fraud—people selling their coupons for cash—is 1.3 percent, but this of course doesn’t prevent the right from finding a couple of garish anecdotes and making it seem as if they’re the norm. Voter fraud, Medicaid fraud, food-stamp fraud…Somehow, in Republican America, only poor people and blacks commit fraud.

This cut is the fraud, because it’s not really about fraud or austerity. It’s entirely about punishing the alleged 47 percent. The bottom half or third of the alleged 47 percent. It’s absolutely appalling. These folks have done a lot of miserable things in the past four years. But this—the morality of this is so repulsively backward, the indecency so operatically and ostentatiously broadcast, I think it takes the gold going away.

The conference process starts next Wednesday and is going to take maybe a few months. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has taken the lead on this issue and has been terrific. Ditto Pat Leahy. Max Baucus, I’m told, is a good get to go a little wobbly (surprise). But this is one where the Democrats have to say this won’t stand. It’s one thing to shut down the government for two weeks and take quixotic stabs at Obamacare. Telling poor children that that fourth box of macaroni and cheese is excessive is something very different.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 26, 2013

October 26, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, Republicans, SNAP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tyranny Over The Most Vulnerable”: Women Are Bearing The Brunt Of The GOP Shutdown Fallout

The “non-essential” programs that are currently unfunded due to the shutdown are in fact essential for many women and children.

The GOP likes to say the war on women is a myth. But the government shutdown, now in its 11th day, is just the latest evidence that it is indeed alive and well. It should be no surprise that women are among those hurt most by the closure, which, predictably, is in part a reaction to the benefits that the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature achievement, guarantees women, as we wrote last week.

From the nation’s elite institutions to the oft-neglected rural areas of this country, women and their families are caught in the middle of a political impasse that has furloughed an estimated 800,000 government workers, threatens to upend the global economy, and has left critical government programs and services scrambling to secure emergency funds in order to serve America’s most vulnerable populations.

The shutdown threatens a number of programs and funding streams, including domestic violence shelters and service centers; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); the Woman, Infants, and Children Program (WIC); School Lunch; Head Start; and Title IX investigations of sexual assault on college campuses. This will have a serious impact on the health, physical safety, food security, and economic stability of women and their families.

Physical Safety

As Bryce Covert wrote last week, funds for domestic violence programs designated under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) have been suspended since October 4. (It should be no surprise that many of the House members leading the shutdown also voted against VAWA itself earlier this year.)

Small centers without access to independent funding – those that serve women with the fewest options – will only be able to weather the storm for so long. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, violence against women has been on the rise, with eight out of 10 shelters reporting increases in the number of women seeking help, and 74 percent of domestic violence victims staying in unsafe situations because of economic insecurity.  Demand for these services is increasing, while funding is being cut from every source. Nearly four out of five of domestic violence service providers have reported decreases in government funding over the past five years, and since October 1, many have closed their doors completely or limited their services.

The shutdown is also affecting the safety of women on college and university campuses across the country. An increasing number of institutions are under investigation for ineffective handling of sexual assault cases adjudicated under Title IX.

And with the shutdown, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has suspended investigations into alleged violations and has halted campus visits necessary for holding institutions accountable.

Food Security

The shutdown threatens the food assistance on which millions of America’s most vulnerable women and children rely. At this point, federal funding for TANF, WIC, and school lunches has been suspended. State and USDA reserve funds are being reallocated so that states can continue to provide these essential services, but they will only be able to function with these limited resources for a short time.

States are shouldering the burden to keep TANF running while the government is shuttered, but last week, 5,200 eligible families in Arizona did not receive their monthly check. Thus far Arizona has been the only state to deny this important benefit for families in need, but every day the program is more strained.

WIC, the federal program that most crucially provides formula and breastfeeding assistance for mothers in need, has also been left in the lurch. On Tuesday, officials announced that no additional WIC vouchers would be issued in the state of North Carolina, where approximately 264,000 women rely on the program. In Utah, the WIC program shut its doors and only reopened four days later because the USDA provided a $2.5 million emergency grant. Other centers are sure to face the same challenges so long as workers are furloughed and grants are on hold.

Economic Security

Head Start programs that provide childcare and education for 7,200 low-income children ages 0-5 did not receive grants due on October 1. Thousands of low-income women are able to go to work every day because their children participate in Head Start programs. Without them, women already struggling in low-wage jobs and lacking benefits are forced to miss work, because no one else is able to care for their children. For women, secure employment is contingent on secure childcare and education for their families. The New York Times reported that programs in six states had closed due to the shutdown and then reopened temporarily thanks to a $10 million gift from a couple in Texas. Head Start will continue as a result of this short-term rescue, but private philanthropy will not be able to do the job of the government over the long term.

In sum, what some define as non-essential government services are, in fact, essential to the economic and physical well-being of America’s most vulnerable women and their families. It’s just another variation on the old adage that one man’s public interest may be another’s tyranny – in this instance, largely tyranny over women and children.

 

By: Andrea Flynn and Nataya Friedan, The National Memo, October 13, 2013

October 14, 2013 Posted by | Government Shut Down, War On Women | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Taking Food Out Of The Mouths Of Babes”: Food Stamps Work, So Why Are We Cutting Them?

Can I tell you a real success story? One we should all be proud of? Great, here goes: The program formerly known as food stamps has kept hunger from exploding along with the number of Americans living in poverty.

“That food insecurity hasn’t increased” since the financial meltdown in 2008, said David Beckmann, president of the Christian anti-hunger group Bread for the World, “is a tremendous testament to the power of SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that replaced food stamps.

That does not mean that every child in this rich country of ours has enough to eat. On the contrary, Eli Saslow’s recent Post piece on a summer bread bus that takes lunch to kids in rural Tennessee was like something straight out of Angela’s Ashes. The 7-year-old who saves the juice from his fruit cup to feed to his baby sister reminded me of Frank McCourt and his classmates drooling for the apple peels their teacher tossed into the garbage in Limerick in the 1930s.

But government spending has kept the bottom from falling out: “What I see every day is how much food stamp programs mean to people on the edge,” said Monsignor John Enzler, president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington. “I tried to live on what food stamps give you for a week last year and I couldn’t do it, but it does make enough of a difference to allow people to stay in their apartments, and pay medical expenses and take care of their children.”

In a still sluggish economy — and compared to the alternative — isn’t that an outcome we should count as a win? You’d think so. Yet on Thursday, the Republican-controlled House passed a farm bill without the nutrition programs normally funded through that legislation.

Why? Well, as Republicans themselves explained on the House floor, it’s because so many on their side of the aisle felt that the $20.5 billion in cuts to food programs in the version of the farm bill that failed last month just weren’t deep enough. “Oh my goodness,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said some colleagues asked him, “why couldn’t you do more?”

Oh my goodness, why should poor kids get to eat free?

Funding such programs through the farm bill “doesn’t serve the needs” of the poor, insisted Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), a fourth-generation farmer who called the bill that passed “the next logical step on the path to real reform.”

If you’re serious about cutting government, Lucas urged members, then vote for the bill. Some conservative groups, meanwhile, opposed it for not going far enough in that regard. (Remember when George W. Bush said he wouldn’t balance his budget on the backs of the poor? His party doesn’t seem to.)

Responding to poverty by paring back nutrition programs is like answering a rise in diabetes by slashing insulin production. And as Pete Gallego (D-Tex.) argued, almost all of the recipients are either children or elderly.

What’s to become of these nutrition programs now is unclear. But even the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to cut them, by $4 billion, and the White House has said it can live with that number. So the argument our leaders are having really boils down to whether we’re going to cut or gut programs that keep at-risk kids from going without.

Some opponents of the bill practically burst into flames on the House floor, where some of the loudest voices were female: “Mitt Romney was right,” thundered Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) “You all do not care about the 47 percent! Shame on you!”

“Vote no! Vote no! It’s ridiculous what you’re doing to our children!” said Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.)

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wasn’t shouting, but was shaming: To pass the bill, she said, was “to dishonor the God who made us.”

“To take food out of the mouths of babies? What are you thinking?” she asked. “Or are you thinking?”

Female anger is a hot topic right now; I just finished Claire Messud’s not-nice novel “The Woman Upstairs,” about an elementary school teacher who life has turned into a human cauldron and “a ravenous wolf.” Even the Blessed Virgin is fuming in Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary.” And if Democratic women on the House floor on Thursday were no slouches in tearing the roof off, well, sometimes fury is the only rational response.

 

By: Melinda Henneberger, She The People, The Washington Post, July 11, 2013

July 12, 2013 Posted by | Poverty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Eat The Future”: The GOP And Federal Spending

On Friday, House Republicans unveiled their proposal for immediate cuts in federal spending. Uncharacteristically, they failed to accompany the release with a catchy slogan. So I’d like to propose one: Eat the Future.

I’ll explain in a minute. First, let’s talk about the dilemma the G.O.P. faces.

Republican leaders like to claim that the midterms gave them a mandate for sharp cuts in government spending. Some of us believe that the elections were less about spending than they were about persistent high unemployment, but whatever. The key point to understand is that while many voters say that they want lower spending, press the issue a bit further and it turns out that they only want to cut spending on other people.

That’s the lesson from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, in which Americans were asked whether they favored higher or lower spending in a variety of areas. It turns out that they want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. They’re evenly divided about spending on aid to the unemployed and — surprise — defense.

The only thing they clearly want to cut is foreign aid, which most Americans believe, wrongly, accounts for a large share of the federal budget.

Pew also asked people how they would like to see states close their budget deficits. Do they favor cuts in either education or health care, the main expenses states face? No. Do they favor tax increases? No. The only deficit-reduction measure with significant support was cuts in public-employee pensions — and even there the public was evenly divided.

The moral is clear. Republicans don’t have a mandate to cut spending; they have a mandate to repeal the laws of arithmetic.

How can voters be so ill informed? In their defense, bear in mind that they have jobs, children to raise, parents to take care of. They don’t have the time or the incentive to study the federal budget, let alone state budgets (which are by and large incomprehensible). So they rely on what they hear from seemingly authoritative figures.

And what they’ve been hearing ever since Ronald Reagan is that their hard-earned dollars are going to waste, paying for vast armies of useless bureaucrats (payroll is only 5 percent of federal spending) and welfare queens driving Cadillacs. How can we expect voters to appreciate fiscal reality when politicians consistently misrepresent that reality?

Which brings me back to the Republican dilemma. The new House majority promised to deliver $100 billion in spending cuts — and its members face the prospect of Tea Party primary challenges if they fail to deliver big cuts. Yet the public opposes cuts in programs it likes — and it likes almost everything. What’s a politician to do?

The answer, once you think about it, is obvious: sacrifice the future. Focus the cuts on programs whose benefits aren’t immediate; basically, eat America’s seed corn. There will be a huge price to pay, eventually — but for now, you can keep the base happy.

If you didn’t understand that logic, you might be puzzled by many items in the House G.O.P. proposal. Why cut a billion dollars from a highly successful program that provides supplemental nutrition to pregnant mothers, infants, and young children? Why cut $648 million from nuclear nonproliferation activities? (One terrorist nuke, assembled from stray ex-Soviet fissile material, can ruin your whole day.) Why cut $578 million from the I.R.S. enforcement budget? (Letting tax cheats run wild doesn’t exactly serve the cause of deficit reduction.)

Once you understand the imperatives Republicans face, however, it all makes sense. By slashing future-oriented programs, they can deliver the instant spending cuts Tea Partiers demand, without imposing too much immediate pain on voters. And as for the future costs — a population damaged by childhood malnutrition, an increased chance of terrorist attacks, a revenue system undermined by widespread tax evasion — well, tomorrow is another day.

In a better world, politicians would talk to voters as if they were adults. They would explain that discretionary spending has little to do with the long-run imbalance between spending and revenues. They would then explain that solving that long-run problem requires two main things: reining in health-care costs and, realistically, increasing taxes to pay for the programs that Americans really want.

But Republican leaders can’t do that, of course: they refuse to admit that taxes ever need to rise, and they spent much of the last two years screaming “death panels!” in response to even the most modest, sensible efforts to ensure that Medicare dollars are well spent.

And so they had to produce something like Friday’s proposal, a plan that would save remarkably little money but would do a remarkably large amount of harm.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times-February 13, 2011

February 14, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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