US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Has the safety net for the poor become a 'comfortable hammock'?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Amid debate over Paul Ryan's controversial budget proposal that some argue will hit the poorest Americans the hardest, Politico reports that one of the big items on the chopping block for cuts is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known by its original name, food stamps.

More and more Americans are taking advantage of food stamp benefits and more businesses are willing to accept them as payment, including fast food chains, gas stations, and convenience stores. That's led Florida Rep. Allen West to argue that the social safety net "has become a comfortable hammock” in which Americans gladly take advantage of government handouts rather than work to pay their own way.

Anyone who has taken the food stamp challenge can tell you that SNAP benefits hardly provide a plush standard of living. As Catholic Charities of Baltimore's executive director Bill McCarthy reported after taking the challenge, "the $30 food stamp supplement that I lived on afforded very limited choices in food selection and very little discretionary spending. My diet of rice, beans, milk, eggs, peanut butter, raw carrots, and yogurt lacked fresh fruit, meat and variety."

Opponents of SNAP also seem to assume that people who receive these benefits are proud to do so. I was lucky enough not to be relying on food stamps while growing up, but I first encountered them while working as a grocery store cashier in high school. I could tell that people tried their best not to call attention to themselves when they had to pay with food stamps. Often I'd see a shopper buying basic staples--milk, bread, eggs--and they'd try to pay with whatever cash or loose change they had on hand. Only when they failed to cover the bill would they reach into their pocket for their food stamps to pay the balance.

The rise of SNAP recipients in recent years (and the subsequent attempt by businesses to cash in and avoid losing customers who can no longer afford their products) shows just how important the safety net is. Many Americans who have never had to seek help in feeding their families are doing so for the first time. I know the shame they carried when producing those vouchers for payment in the checkout line; I can only imagine the difficulty they face in coming forward for the first time to apply for aid.

Some religious leaders have strongly defended benefits that help the poor and criticized the Ryan budget for attempting to cut these benefits. Congressional Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut even reached out to Cardinal Timothy Dolan to lend the church's voice to the appeal for protecting the needs of the most vulnerable. (Dolan, according to Catholic News Service, "had no immediate response" to DeLauro's request, a stark contrast to his response on other issues.)

We need strong moral voices--and more importantly, real stories that are not steeped in rhetoric--to support the continued funding of the safety net. Contrary to what Allen West suggests it is not a "comfortable hammock" that people enjoy falling into. But for those who do find themselves in it, they are surely glad it was there because the alternative is much worse.