I may be naive, but not about what you may think…

I was having a perfectly good visit with a friend at work. We were sharing dog pictures and yakking and laughing when a passerby derailed our pleasant conversation. He didn’t even stop to chat. He just lobbed in a comment about the column on SNAP benefits I had in the Trib a few weeks ago and then continued innocently on his way.

At the mention of the column, my friend rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of, “I saw your article. You’d have a different attitude about food stamps if you had worked in the place where they hand them out to people.” As it turns out, that had been one of her jobs in her pre-Baylor life and, to put it mildly, the experience had left her skeptical about the whole food stamp system. To put it less mildly — she seemed angry. I could hear the frustration rising in her voice as she described, for example, parents who seemed to have enough money to pay for the cigarettes they were smoking but not enough money to pay for food for their children. She may have been a little surprised when, instead of arguing with her, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences working in the Food Stamp program.

Here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree with my friend.

It makes me angry and frustrated to hear about people who “waste” their money on cigarettes (or whatever) while taking my money via taxes to pay for food. Just like everybody else in the world, I want to spend as much of my own money as possible on me, or – in an attempt to sound slightly more generous – on my friends and family and interests I care about.

So why do I support a system of government programs that makes me angry and takes money out of my pocket? Well, it’s not because I naively believe there are no problems with it. I know there are people whose children go hungry because their parents trade their food stamps for all kinds of things – from rent to drugs. I know there are people who quit their jobs when their earned income tax check comes and blow the whole thing on X-boxes and tattoos. I know there are “students” who apply for low-interest, subsidized, student loans and then drop out as soon as the check comes with no thought of ever paying it back. I am not blind to any of this, and even though thanks to Bridges out of Poverty training and other interventions I can understand it a little better, I still don’t like it. Like my friend, it frustrates me to the point of anger.

So why then? To tell you the truth, I wonder that myself sometimes. I guess it comes down to a few basic things.

First of all, I think we need something. I am not willing to go 100% “survival of the fittest” in regard to social policy. I can imagine myself falling on hard times or people I love falling on hard times, and I want a safety net to be there. Also, though I know there are problems, I do think we tend to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. It’s just human nature to dwell on and magnify the things that upset us and forget all the times the system works well. Food Stamp fraud, for example, is estimated to amount to about 1 cent on the dollar, not perfect of course, but not all that terrible for a system that serves as many people as ours. I believe it is doing more good than harm.

More foundationally, I subscribe to the philosophy that we are “all better off when we are all better off.” If I sell cars, I am better off if more people can afford to buy them. If I have kids, they are better off if the other kids in their school are not dealing with so many problems that they can’t pay attention in class. My town has better streets if more people have decent jobs and are a paying into the tax coffers. My hospital has more resources to take care of me if fewer people are using the resource-hogging emergency room as their primary source of care. I guess it doesn’t seem to me “the market” has a very good track record of maximizing this general prosperity all on its own. If we want more people to climb the ladder of success, I think we have to give the “invisible hand” a little hand every now and then – enter government programs.

Does that mean I think the current system of food stamps and other government programs is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think we should just throw money at it with no thought to accountability? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think it’s okay for parents to trade the food stamps that are meant to help feed their children for cigarette money? Absolutely not. Does that mean I’m enthusiastic about donating a chunk of my hard-earned paycheck every month to subsidize people who “don’t want to work.” Absolutely not. In fact, it irks me when I feel like I’m being pressured into some kind of blanket defense of the whole system just because I don’t happen to think we ought to defund it to the point that it has no hope of serving its purpose. And, it irks me the other way when anytime I criticize the system people accuse me of being unjust to poor people. That kind of all or nothing thinking seems counterproductive to me.

There is no doubt some people are bad and take advantage of the system. (I’ll just mention that  happens at the top of the economic pyramid as well as at the bottom.) It may even be the whole thing has some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I am saying I think we need something, and I am saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to deep six what we have without something that looks better on the horizon.

If I am naïve it is not in blindly believing that SNAP or any of our government programs are perfect. It may be in stubbornly believing – despite lots of evidence – that if we set our minds to it, we have the capacity to construct a program of social “scaffolding” that will make it more likely that more of us can achieve financial security and success — and that if we do — we will all be better off for it. I’m okay with being naive about that.

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