Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bloated Food Stamp Program Neglects Americans' Right to Their Moral Choices

A 3/28/15 New Jersey Star-Ledger letter lamented that Congress’ Food Stamp Cuts Neglect Poor Americans. The cuts referred to are part of a Federal budget blueprint passed by the House of Representatives, which would cut 18% from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps). (Farm Aid would also be cut by 16%.)

The letter, submitted by Susan Joseph Rack of Martinsville, NJ, committed a grave moral error; focussing solely on a desired end while ignoring consideration of the means of achieving that end. She wrote, “When it comes to reducing hunger and poverty, our investments in SNAP are working. Congress should not mess with such a highly effective program.” I left these comments, drawing on quotes from Rack’s letter:

SNAP has ballooned to nearly $80 billion a year with 46 million recipients, up dramatically from the $15 billion and 17 million recipients in 2001. Despite that expansion, the proposed House budget cuts will amount to only 13.7 $billion a year, which still leaves a gargantuan 65 $billion program.

Yet, proponents of SNAP still complain. No matter how much of taxpayer money is seized and spent, proponents won’t consider cuts—not even “cuts” in the growth of such programs—to be open to rational discussion. No amount of spending is ever enough for the welfare statists. And this highlights the malignant nature of the SNAP program, and redistributionist welfare state programs generally. They are cancerous by nature. The GOP doesn’t even want to end SNAP. It’s reductions leave most of its recent growth in place. And still Republicans are criticized.

Despite those huge numbers, the biggest problem with SNAP is not monetary, but moral. Ms. Rack states that “. . . the primary beneficiaries of SNAP are children, the elderly, veterans and the disabled.” So?

The moral problem is this: SNAP deprives American taxpayers of their right to make moral judgements on how they spend their money. How am I to know whether the recipients of food stamps are deserving of my “help?” Where is the parents’ responsibility to feed their own children? Why didn’t the elderly recipients save for their old age when they were working—if they even worked? How hard is that veteran looking for a job, or a better-paying job? Is that “disabled” person really disabled? I’ve known people on disability who do all manner of physical and mental activities. I’ve known people who didn’t think it necessary to save for rough times or old age, because “the government will take care of me.”

Undoubtedly, some food stamp recipients fall on hard times through no fault of their own, and collect the SNAP benefits only until they can get back on their feet economically. But that’s the point: SNAP deprives American taxpayers of the right to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible people in deciding how the taxpayer spends his own charitable dollars, or whether to spend his dollars on charity at all. For example, I don’t believe that being “poor” is itself adequate reason for giving someone a handout, because being poor can very easily be the person’s own fault—i.e., being the result of bad choices rather than unforeseen  circumstances beyond the person’s control. To the extent my tax dollars go toward the SNAP program, is the extent to which my rights are violated, and that’s the fundamental immorality of the SNAP program.

Rack’s statement that “. . . if SNAP were a corporate program, Congress would be holding it up as a model of effectiveness and efficiency.” Maybe or maybe not—and utterly beside the point. Ms. Rack neglects the fundamental moral difference between government force and voluntary private association.

There’s nothing wrong with food assistance. But there is a black-and-white moral difference between a coercive government program and a private voluntary charitable effort, corporate or otherwise. Defenders of SNAP always ignore the means, and focus only on the ends. In so doing, they commit a grave moral sin. But the ends don’t automatically justify the means. Otherwise, we’d live in a predatory jungle (we’re partly there already). If the means are immoral, the ends cannot be justified, no matter how convincingly anyone asserts that “our investments in SNAP are working.” And the means—forcibly redistributing wealth from those who earned it to those who didn’t—is immoral. It is legalized plunder.

Whether or not helping some needy person get food is a desirable end is rightfully and morally a personal choice. If it is desirable, we should choose the moral means to that end. We should recognize people's right to decide if, who, when, and in what capacity to help others. We should recognize each person’s right to judge what works and what doesn’t, and direct his charitable dollars accordingly. We should recognize every individual’s right to make moral judgements as to the worthiness of recipients of his charitable dollars. Ending SNAP would be a good moral step in this direction.

Unfortunately, the debate in Washington is only about the size of SNAP, when we should be debating how best to least disruptively phase out the program. That said, it’s laudable that the GOP is offering these cuts. Every dollar cut from the gargantuan federal budget is another dollar left in the hands of the people who earned it. Cutting spending wherever politically feasable is the right thing to do.

Related Reading:

Rights vs. Need: Who Determines How Much Food Aid is "Enough"?

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