Feeding the Poor.

The number of people on food stamps has been increasing nationwide, reports The New York Times. The growth comes not just through increased need but also through government outreach and promotion of the nutrition program on behalf of states. And the trend began way before the recent downturn:

The revival began a decade ago, after tough welfare laws chased millions of people from the cash rolls, many into low-wage jobs as fast-food workers, maids, and nursing aides. Newly sympathetic officials saw food stamps as a way to help them. For states, the program had another appeal: the benefits are federally paid.

But support also turned on chance developments, including natural disasters (which showed the program’s value in emergencies) and the rise of plastic benefit cards (which eased stigma and fraud). The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter.

So officials saw that rushing people into low-wage jobs didn't really help alleviate poverty and that grocery stores would like more customers, no matter where the money to pay for food comes from. That always strikes me as the missing element when opponents criticize programs that help the poor: Taking care of our neediest citizens is not only a moral imperative but also adds to those who can take part in the economy.

Of course, there are still state-level administrators around the country who believe denying the poor any type of aid -- even on the chance they'll starve -- is for their own good. Like New York City's former welfare commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Jason Turner:

But Mr. Turner, now a consultant in Milwaukee, warns that the aid encourages the poor to work less and therefore remain in need. “It’s going to be very difficult with large swaths of the lower middle class tasting the fruits of dependency to be weaned from this,” he said.

And that doesn't even begin to compare in offensiveness of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer comparison of feeding the poor to feeding stray animals -- a bad idea, he says, because strays "breed."

Both Turner and Bauer should read the Times story, filled with people who work but have an incredibly hard time making ends meet. There will likely always be people unable to work, and there will always be jobs on the bottom of the pay scale. The only thing that changes is whether we decide those people should have access to an easier life.

-- Monica Potts

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