Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Bible, the Government, and Food Assistance

(A WPA poster, promoting a good diet. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.) 

The Food Stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or "SNAP") had its origins in the New Deal & the Great Depression, when people were unemployed, broke, & hungry, and charity couldn't handle the demand.

In May of 2013, there was a Bible debate in Congress about SNAP.

Representative Juan Vargas (D-Ca) highlighted the book of Matthew in support of SNAP, but Representative Mike Conaway (R-Tex) disputed the notion that government has a duty to help feed its citizens: "I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual. I don't read it to speak to the United States government. And so I would take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that."

Representative Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn), who has received massive government farm subsidies, echoed the individual-not-government argument: "Jesus made it very clear we have a duty and obligation as Christians and as citizens of this country to take care of each other...But I think a fundamental argument we're having today is what's the duty of the federal government. We're all here on this committee making decisions about other people's money."

Representative Doug LeMalfa (R-Ca) chimed in too: "That's all someone else's money. We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor."

(The WPA served over 1.2 billion school lunches to children, and set many of the standards used in subsequent school lunch programs. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)  

A few points:

1. The U.S. government is supposed to be "We the People." As a famous Republican once said, American government is "of the people, by the people, for the people." Therefore, when the federal government creates a food assistance program, it is We the People helping We the People. It is individuals helping individuals, through the government that we created for ourselves.

2. Even the conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, understood the role of government in helping people: "I was never able to convince Tip (O'Neill) that I did not want to deprive the truly needy of the assistance the rest of us owed them; I just wanted to make government programs more efficient..." (from Reagan's autobiography, Ronald Reagan: An American Life, emphasis added).

3. The Founding Fathers stated that one of their reasons for writing the U.S. Constitution was to "promote the general welfare" (preamble). The Constitution also charges Congress with providing for the general welfare (Article 1, Section 8).

4. Food banks are already overwhelmed with demand, and will be further overwhelmed if the SNAP program is cut back. (See, e.g., here, here, and here).

(A WPA poster promoting the benefits of milk. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

New Deal policies attempted--quite successfully--to feed the hungry during the Great Depression. By way of surplus commodity programs, CCC camps, WPA school lunches, and more, Americans had food assistance through those destitute times. Today, this New Deal morality lives on in the SNAP program. But many of our political "leaders" want to drastically reduce, or eliminate it, even as food banks are overwhelmed. And, as usual, they often paint those in need as "lazy" and "worthless," bringing into question their desire to help them, even through charity.  

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