A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. ~Samuel Johnson
Food stamps are the most tangible, easily understood (everybody eats) example of welfare in action. And the food stamps program, which benefits almost a quarter of Americans, is usually hard for even the most parsimonious lawmakers to dismiss as sycophancy. (A family that needs $31.50 a week–the average food stamp payment–is pretty hard to tread on.) But maybe not anymore, as the sequester empowers the budget busters to trim meat ($4 billion worth) along with the fat.
Welfare is divisive exactly because it means different things. The archetypal “taker” image of a lazy ne’er-do-well cashing a welfare check and drinking it up in beer disturbs every contributing citizen. But the much more common tableaux of a couple of kids doing their math homework next to an empty refrigerator is what welfare is really meant to combat. Food stamps are good for this: not only can’t you buy beer with them or cash them in, you can’t even buy junk food–only stuff that might help a kid with long division. But as long as the aforementioned jerk–or the persistent specter of him, anyway–still slakes his unearned thirst with government assistance, objections to all “safety net” programs will remain firm in certain quarters. And those studious kids, veterans (it’s estimated 1.5 million veteran households use the program), and many elderly will take the hit. It’s the government’s job to fight corruption and waste–and that’s what lawmakers espousing food stamps cuts profess to be doing. (The bills are complicated and huge–the farm bill, which includes food stamps provisions, also includes about five other industrial sectors not immediately connected to farming.) There’s never a reason to object to reinforcing the “integrity” of the programs, and there is always waste that needs combating (ask the Pentagon). But the fact that there are more Americans than ever using the food stamps program now–and because it is, consequently, much more expensive–is not a reason to cut it, but evidence of its current importance.