The phrase often used to describe the welfare state is the "safety net," a term with connotations of small numbers of people otherwise in grave danger of harm. Then we find out that the number of people on food stamps (aka SNAP) has close to doubled over the last four years and now is around 48 million, costing close to $80 billion per year. How did it get so big so fast, and is the term "safety net" really a fair description of its current status?
Over at the Washington Post a guy named Eli Saslow appears to be undertaking a project to report on the implications of the food stamp explosion in the real world. On March 16 he had a big report on food stamps in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; and on April 23 another big report from Florida.
Saslow clearly comes at this with a view that all food stamps are good and more food stamps are better. Still, there's a lot to be learned from reading his articles.
First, I found them by a Google search of "food stamps Washington Post." I guess that determines what ads you get. At the top of my version of the Rhode Island article we have:
Government Assisted Phone
Get a Free Phone & Monthly Plan. See if You Qualify for One Today!
And then down at the bottom of page 1:
Apply For SSI/Disability
Get SSI & Social Security Benefits Free Consults & Help With Your App
Click that last link and you go not to a government site, but rather to the site of a firm called Myler Disability, "Social Security Disability Advocates."
Also, many more such ads scattered through these multi-page articles.
But let's look at the articles themselves. In Florida we follow around a woman named Dillie Nerios, employed by "a local food bank that is funded in part by the state" of Florida. Her job: to recruit "at least" 150 seniors each month onto the food stamp rolls. Is it working? "Nowhere had the SNAP program grown as it has in Florida, where enrollment had risen from 1.45 million people in 2008 to 3.35 million last year."
To help enroll more seniors, the government has published an outreach guide that blends compassion with sales techniques, generating some protests in Congress. The guide teaches recruiters how to “overcome the word ‘no,’ ” suggesting answers for likely hesitations.
Nerios spends a lot of time with a couple named Lonnie, 60, and wife Celeste, who seem to have lost most of their savings in a failed business venture a couple of years ago. They are eligible for food stamps, but clearly reluctant to take them. Dillie tries everything to get them signed up. Saslow meanwhile tries everything to get your sympathy for the effort, including describing the small mobile home where L&C live, and Lonnie's lack of success in getting jobs in the last few years. Then, even as he's trying to pull on your heartstrings, Saslow basically gives away the game:
They decorated the walls of the mobile home with memories of a different life: photos of Lonnie in his old New Jersey police officer uniform, or in Germany for a manufacturing job that paid $25 an hour, or on vacation in their old pop-up camper.
An "old New Jersey police officer uniform"? You mean this poor, poor guy has one of those New Jersey police pensions? For anybody who follows any news at all, New Jersey police pensions have to be one of the biggest scandals out there. In this article we never learn how big Lonnie's pension is, or whether he is one of the notorious New Jersey "double dippers." But hey Eli, an article trying to drum up sympathy for the poor condition of a retired New Jersey policeman who must be entitled to a pension, and doesn't even mention the pension or how big it is? This is really preposterous! By the way, Lonnie and Celeste also have five grown working kids. Any chance that one of them could pitch in before the parents become wards of the taxpayers?
You are probably asking, how can Lonnie and Celeste even be eligible for food stamps if he has one of those New Jersey police pensions? The answer is that most pensions are not counted for food stamp eligibility. Again, we can't know the details if Eli won't ask the most basic questions here. Oh, and by the way, equity value of home (unlimited in amount) is also not counted in food stamp eligibility, and same for value of a first car (this one varies some state by state). Don't let being a millionaire slow you down!
The articles are also completely permeated with the economic fallacy that passing around free money is a good thing for the economy. As in, for example, "food-stamp enrollment has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost $6 billion each year into the state. The money helps to sustain communities, grocery stores and food producers." So I guess the government should just pay everyone to sit around and do nothing -- that will make us all rich!
I appreciate the Washington Post at least shining something of a light on what is going on out there. But really, in its worldview and total acceptance of the most ridiculous economic fallacies, this series is an embarrassment.
UPDATE: Thinking about this post since I wrote it yesterday, my question is, is it possible that Lonnie came away from his tour as a NJ policeman with no pension? I don't think so. Saslow is trying to pull on our heartstrings. If Lonnie had no pension, there is no way that he would have omitted that fact. And there is much in the article to indicate that Lonnie must have some source of income, since he clearly spends money (fixing up his mobile home, for example) and Saslow emphasizes repeatedly that all jobs have fallen through. No, Lonnie has a pension -- and NJ police pensions are known to be some of the most lucrative -- and Saslow is intentionally omitting that fact to deceive the readers. Not good.