The rest of the story

When it comes to welfare programs, the focus is almost entirely on those that help the poor. Those assisting the rich get mentioned only in passing if at all.

In fact, the recent focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also called food stamps, has left out “The rest of the story,” as newscaster Paul Harvey used to say so distinctly before he died in 2009 at age 90.

That story, of course, is the wealthy farmers who collectively get many millions in unneeded government aid. These farmers include members of Congress and state governors, including ours.

Why isn’t this story being told? Given his conservative political bent, even Paul Harvey might not tell it if he were still doing his broadcast. He might give a pass to the self-called pro-life Republicans who are pushing food stamps cuts, including for children and pregnant women.

These politicians can’t seem to get beyond their ideology and see that food for people, especially in the developing stages, is not only a basic human need, it’s also a societal benefit. Inadequately nourished children do less well later in life and are more likely to be an economic drag on society.

To quote Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation and professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan:

“SNAP benefits not only reduce food insecurity and poverty this year; they also reduce poverty in the next generation. Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families’ access to food stamps improved their infant’s health and birth weight. Children who benefitted from the program later posted better health, higher educational attainment, less heart disease and, for women, greater earnings and less reliance on welfare as adults.”

As for the often stated concern that many people are scamming the SNAP system, studies do not find this. This claim is an unsubstantiated myth that continues to be widely circulated as fact.

As one who was a county welfare caseworker in the middle 1960s when Medicare and other federal programs were just coming in and who has been a mental health social worker for over 40 years, I’ve seen many persons with financial problems. And I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is to get assistance just right, helping only the most needy.

Regulations were put in to weed out the scam artists. Food stamps is an obvious example: giving people Monopoly-type money (stamps) and later a plastic card so that they couldn’t spend family food money on things such as drinks, smokes and gambling.

Another program that required regulation tightening was Medicaid coverage for nursing home care. This was because of wealthy families who didn’t need public assistance having grandma and grandpa divest their assets in order to get the coverage.

Aid to farmers, however, still follows a backward, wasteful formula, with those needing little or no help getting by far the most and those needing the most help getting a relative pittance.

And there is corporate welfare whereby the very well-heeled receive financial subsidies or favoritism directly or indirectly from the government.

The actual amount lost to the general population from government welfare programs worked or misused by the wealthy is many times that of the alleged amount lost to fraud or misuse in food stamps.

But it seems easier for us to complain about the poor and to cut back their food supply, even if we are “pro-life” and are literally taking food out of the mouths of babies or nourishment out of the umbilical cords sustaining embryos and fetuses.

As a headline in the US Catholic magazine asked recently, “Congress wants to cut $4 billion a year from food stamps: Where are the Christians?”

(James Lein is a community columnist for The Minot Daily News)