A Rich Christian in the Age of Food Stamps
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).
It's in this vein that I favor protection of SNAP, not because I cede what is arguably the Church's responsibility to the State, but because I believe God has instituted the government as a servant for our good (Rom. 13:4). Until the Church can succeed in stretching its hands across demographic divides—rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban and rural—for the necessary sharing of its resources, it cannot adequately resolve the inequities into which people are born. This necessitates some level of government intervention, including providing food for the hungry. This is why evangelical Christians—Republican and Democrat—should link arms with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Jewish Federations of North America, and many other religious organizations to lobby for the protection of the food stamp program.
Undoubtedly, SNAP is an imperfect program, and some recipients abuse their benefits by exchanging them for cash. As The Weekly Standard reported in August, illegal trafficking is on the rise. However, trafficking rates have significantly declined since the '90s, and the abuse of benefits does not actually cost the government more money, but instead, diverts the benefits from their intended purpose, reports the USDA. Let's be clear: if we're debating deficit reduction, it cannot be achieved by correcting the abuse of food stamps. Saving the government money will only be served by enrolling fewer Americans—a hard cut to make when more need the program.
The solutions we propose for reducing poverty will always provoke an important question: How do we help the poor without creating systems of dependence that inevitably entrap them? Welfare—and work—are both legitimate answers in their own right. As the Church, we will continue to wrestle with how best to live into our calling to "seek justice; correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause," (Isaiah 1:17), but I suggest we might begin, in this time of economic insecurity and rising inequity, by defending the food stamp program, which, for many millions of Americans, is an answer to the prayer our Lord taught us to pray:
Give us this day our daily bread.