(Originally Published on GrasstopsUSA.com.)
Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is trying to look compassionate. He has decided to spend a week living entirely off of food stamps, with a budget of only $21 to procure groceries for all seven days. During this entire demonstration, Mr. Kulongoski was accompanied by an actual beneficiary of the food stamp program-Ms. Christina Sigman-Davenport-and, of course, obliging reporters ready to publicize this gesture.
During his shopping, Mr. Kulongoski suffered some horrendous and unimaginably cruel deprivations. For instance, he was unable to purchase organic bananas and was forced to settle for the less-expensive regular kind-made more affordable for low-income people by genetic engineering and artificial preservatives. Mr. Kulongoski could not get his preferred Progresso soup and had to buy Cup O’Noodles instead. And, of course, he had to endure the indignity of purchasing mostly generic brands. Surely, the suffering of about two billion Third-World residents who live in utter destitution pales in comparison with Mr. Kulongoski’s week of “low-class” existence.
But seriously now: what is Mr. Kulongoski’s purpose in this gesture? In his own words, “I don’t care what they call it, if this is what it takes to get the word out… This is an issue every citizen in this state should be aware of.” So, Mr. Kulongoski-by approximating the experience of a food stamp recipient-wants to “get the word out” about the insufficiency of current food stamp programs and the alleged extreme deprivation that they result in for their beneficiaries. This, he hopes, will spur on popular support for even further expansions of the contemporary American welfare state. The Oregon governor’s stunt is likely to gather support among upper-class leftists who believe that everyone ought to be entitled to get the latest, most-overpriced, and mostly mediocre brands of everything-but it offers no constructive arguments regarding the issues surrounding government welfare, and no genuine connection between the governor’s actions and the position he is trying to spread.
Here are some of the crucial questions that Governor Kulongoski did not bother to ask-and that his gesture obscures rather than addresses.
Is living off food stamps true poverty? The answer depends on what definition of poverty we use and to what we compare the financial conditions of food stamp recipients. By historical standards, even the poorest of welfare recipients in the United States today has a standard of living that even nobles and kings in the pre-industrial Western world would have envied; he has access to far more food than his recommended daily caloric intake requires. He has an apartment or house, powered and kept comfortable by modern appliances; he most likely has a car, a television, a microwave, and even a personal computer that is perhaps only a few years old. He has historically unprecedented access to any information he might want-if only via the Internet at his local public library. He either does not work at all-in which case he has all the leisure time he could want-or his work schedule still leaves him with eight or more free hours per day. He does not have to experience the exhausting toil of the typical agricultural manual laborer at the turn of the last century or the near-starvation lifestyle of most in Sub-Saharan Africa today.
When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he referred to the fortunate conditions of English laborers who could afford to have a shirt to wear most of the time and to eat actual bread with their meals-compared to the majority of Frenchmen who had neither of these luxuries. If this is affluence, historically defined, then Cup-O-Soup and artificially grown bananas are unimaginably high peaks of extravagance for most people in most times and most places.
People can live happily, healthily, and productively off the money provided by food stamps-if they can discipline themselves to live responsibly. By any absolute definition, this is not genuine poverty. As for the relative definition of poverty, most commonly used by advocates of expanded government welfare, it is simply a veiled desire for egalitarianism and an identical distribution of wealth to everybody. After all, if one’s poverty is only defined in relation to other people’s incomes, then “dire poverty” will persist so long as anybody has an income lower than somebody else. Advocates of this absurd definition can only consistently advocate the ultimate goal of total economic equality for everybody-a condition that stifles aspirations and, as the bloodbaths of 20th-century totalitarian states have shown, leads to the extermination of the best and brightest in a society. Some of those who define poverty relatively may not recognize this implication, but their push toward expanding the welfare state leads precisely to such horrific consequences.
Another crucial issue to address is the kinds of people that normally live off food stamps. Are they truly victims of circumstance who have done nothing wrong to deserve a lower standard of living, or is their predicament (however mild it may be) their own doing? Of course, there exist people who at times suffer severe financial loss through no fault of their own. But if those people use the food stamp program at all-and many will not, out of concern for their autonomy and self-sufficiency-they will do so temporarily, until they can find a way to earn back their living. The people who chronically live off of food stamps do so for one of two reasons. Many of them do not want to work or to obtain the skills and education necessary to hold a long-term job; supporting them amounts to subsidizing idleness and sloth through taxpayer funds. A smaller group is physically disabled in a manner that precludes them from holding most jobs. But it is a rare instance indeed where a physically handicapped person cannot rely on the help of family members, or the assistance of private charity, or the performance of some job that is within his ability.
If indeed the vast majority of people who live off food stamps do so because of personal irresponsibility and sloth, then expanding the incentives for them to do so should be out of the question. Quite the contrary, they are precisely the ones who should not receive any assistance at the expense of hard-working, productive, disciplined taxpayers.
Furthermore, is the welfare system even desirable, or does it pose disincentives to people who could otherwise be working and earning more money? Does having a guarantee of a regular income from the government-irrespective of what one does-dampen one’s desire to work and to stand on one’s own? Does it encourage perpetual dependence, both material and intellectual, on the support of others? If so, then the welfare state hurts more than it helps. Rather than alleviating the conditions of the least-financially-endowed Americans, it hinders them from achieving independence and prosperity through discipline and hard work. Charity is sometimes important and justified-but only for those who have fallen on hard times through no personal fault. Private charities are far more effective at assisting only those who genuinely seek to help themselves; they can discriminate amongst potential recipients and make their aid conditional on active searching for jobs, development of skills, and living a clean, moral life. Government, on the other hand, is far less selective and tends to disregard questions of personal morality and ambition when distributing aid. Furthermore, taxpayers have no choice whether to support the struggling young genius with big dreams for himself and the world or the chronic drug addict who wastes his welfare money on fueling his destructive habit. Government makes that choice for them and supports the drug addict far more often than not.
But not a trace of these kinds of discussions was to be found in Kulongoski’s attempt to show the world what living on welfare is really like. Instead of thoughtful analysis, the Oregon governor has engaged in mere sensationalist, populist propagandizing for a program that is incoherent and exacerbates the problems it was meant to solve. Kulongoski’s gesture is mere political posturing; it does not constructively address the issue of government welfare or the fundamental criticisms of the welfare system.