© Josh Sager – September 2013
Last week, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps by $4 billion a year, for 10 years (adding up to a total cut of $40 billion). These cuts are estimated to eliminate SNAP benefits for millions of Americans, many of whom are in desperate need of help. While it is unlikely that these cuts will be passed into law because the Democrats control the Senate and are unlikely to sign onto such cuts, this vote does tell us a lot about the GOP’s view on welfare.
After the House vote on the Farm bill, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (arguably the most powerful person in the House), said the following:
“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most. Most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job. Most people want to go out and be productive so that they can earn a living, so that they can support a family, so that they can have hope for a more prosperous future. They want what we want.”
Cantor’s quote illustrates a perfect example of the central misassumption that many in the right wing make about welfare: They believe that poor people who take welfare are just lazy and, if we could only get them off of the teat, they would magically no longer need welfare money because they would just go get well-paying jobs.
It is true that, most people would be ecstatic to have a well-paying job and not need to rely upon welfare. That said, taking away these peoples’ welfare does nothing to fix the underlying causes of their need to take welfare, nor does it magically create jobs with which they can earn enough money to be self-sufficient. Because of this, kicking people off of welfare without addressing the underlying causes to their poverty only serves to cut the lifelines of these needy people and make a shallow rhetorical point for the right wing ideologues.
Currently, the US is in an economic slump and there are more people looking for work than jobs which pay a living wage—this necessitates that some people will be jobless and others will be working jobs which do not pay enough for them to survive unassisted.
In the face of the current economic situation, kicking people off of welfare may feel good rhetorically to some groups, but it is terrible policy. Welfare money allows poor people to survive (not necessarily comfortably) and bolsters the economy as a whole through increasing the buying power of the American people. Every dollar cut out of welfare equals a dollar taken directly out of the economy (more if you consider the fact that the SNAP program has a multiplier effect of 1.79) and a dollar that some poor person must find a way to make in order to ensure that their children don’t go hungry.
Unless we solve the structural and economic roots of poverty, there are simply no legitimate bootstraps with which the poor can pull themselves up by once their welfare money is repurposed to fund more wars or tax cuts for the wealthy (which, ironically enough, is truly wasteful welfare for the rich and defense contractors).
Welfare Cuts, Desperation, and Crime
In a way, the right wing idea that poor people who are kicked off of welfare will take personal responsibility is correct—albeit not the kind of responsibility that the right wing is talking about.
Desperate people who are unable to make money legally often turn to illegal means in order to provide enough resources to let their families survive; we see this both in situations of long-term poverty as well as in natural disasters (when people will “rob” stores in order to get water and food in the aftermath of a disaster).
Illegal, high profit, industries like drug production and dealing take over in areas of economic depression (ex. the meth epidemic in poor Midwestern areas) because people need to feed their families and drugs are seen as one of the only ways for a person to make a living.
It is important for me to make clear that I am not saying that only poor people deal drugs or that all welfare recipients are potential dealers—that said, the fact remains that a person with a starving family and no other way out will often choose to break the law rather than let their family suffer.
Currently, welfare helps plug the gaps in many Americans’ income, thus preventing many people from being forced into elicit industries or watching their kids go hungry. If we start eviscerating SNAP and throwing people off of welfare programs, we will force some of these people into high-risk, high-reward illegal industries. Not only will this cause an increase of criminal conduct, but it will perpetuate the terrible cycle of poverty, crime, and imprisonment.
When poor people are forced to commit crimes for survival, they often end up arrested and imprisoned. Once these people have a criminal record, they are even less able to secure legal employment and are forced even further into an illegal lifestyle. This cycle reverberates through generations and stifles opportunity for those who are trapped in it.
Rather than ignoring the problems that created the need for welfare, cutting welfare programs and paying for the effects of these cuts in the long run, the USA needs to do the exact opposite—we must increase welfare payouts/time limits until we can address the root causes of poverty, and start breaking the cycle of criminality.
It is true that increasing the benefits of welfare programs costs money but there is plenty of waste to cut that would allow us to do so in a budget-neutral manner. For example, extremely profitable petrochemical corporations receive $41 billion dollars in subsidies a year (nearly half a trillion dollars every decade), despite the fact that such subsidies are absolutely pointless. We should cut this wasteful corporate welfare and repurpose it for a truly necessary form of welfare that will help millions of Americans. Such a shift would improve the living standards of many needy Americans and would serve to increase the total amount of money in the demand-side of the economy (leading to more jobs to provide services and an uplifting effect on the entire system).
Welfare is simply a tourniquet—keeping people alive until the bleeding is stopped—and we need to address the causes of poverty. These causes are massively complex, including everything from automation and outsourcing, to wealth inequality and a lack of demand. Put simply (in a space-necessitated oversimplification), we need to use stimulus to increase the number of jobs in the marketplace, promote a more equitable distribution of benefits for work between workers and executives, and use education to ensure that our workforce is able to compete in a global economy. If we can increase the numbers of well-paying jobs, we can eventually reduce welfare, not by kicking needy people off but through making is so that fewer people need help.
People who commit non-violent crimes because they have no other options need to be given opportunities to find legitimate employment, not jail cells. Those guilty of non-violent drug and property crimes should be given restitution and community service, during which they should also receive job training and education assistance. If we can give criminals legal employment options and stop crippling them with the stigma attached to a criminal record, we can start turning them into productive members of society and help their children escape the cycle of criminality and poverty.