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A Rich Christian in the Age of Food Stamps

Sep 17 2013
Why food insecurity is every evangelical’s concern.

The debate over food stamps continues in Congress this month, and the arguments are as red and blue as we would expect. Republicans, rallying for smaller government, argue for a reduction in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, which would make 2 million fewer people eligible for the program. Democrats, supportive of government spending, favor the protection of SNAP.

And both sides are quoting the Bible, one saying, "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10) and the other, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these… you did for me" (Matt. 24:40).

I am a Christian without strong red or blue loyalties, but I do think rising food insecurity—defined by the USDA as lack of "consistent access throughout the year to adequate food"—should concern every one of us. As research continues to reveal the widening gap between rich and poor, many poor Americans struggle to overcome the systemic inequities that restrict their access to the resources necessary for their rescue.

Regrettably, I have only begun caring about the protection of SNAP since my teenage nephew came to live with us this year and began sharing with us his painful childhood stories of food insecurity. I confess to usually affording the insularity wealth buys, my life comfortably sheltered from the struggles of the poor. I am one of the rich getting richer, and borrowing Ron Sider's phrase, I don't often know how to live as a "rich Christian in an age of hunger." And yet I want to learn. I want to grow in generosity and compassion. I want to "do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share," (1 Tim. 6:18).

My nephew, now 18, grew up hungry. Unlike my own children, who, by no merit of their own, landed into an upper middle-class family with two well-educated parents, my nephew (whose father died when he was young) was raised by a single mother who cobbled together an existence from minimum-wage jobs—and welfare. For a while, the live-in boyfriend delivered pizzas and brought in a little extra cash, but it was never enough to feed the little boy whose childhood passed in the quiet anxiety between government checks, as he looked forward to calling the toll-free number on the back of his mother's EBT card to see whether the monthly allotment of $100 been added.

Despite our stereotypes of lazy welfare queens (and some will argue that my nephew's mother, before her death, had been one), 4 of every 5 SNAP enrollees are either working or can't work because they lack access to childcare, suffer from a disability, or are elderly. Like my nephew, they are even children themselves. People who criticize or outright dismiss the food stamp program all have stories of the tattooed bum paying for his groceries with WIC checks (a caricature crassly painted by Daniel Flynn in his piece for The American Spectator)—or alternatively, the young mother giving birth to more WIC checks (excuse me, babies). But these people do not fairly represent the Americans who may have more legitimate reason for relying on food stamps. Perhaps we could even say that the majority of SNAP recipients are the widow, the orphan, and the alien—people whom God rises to defend (Ps. 68:5).

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A Rich Christian in the Age of Food Stamps