How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

It depends on how you look at inequality, welfare and food stamps

David Shipler, the author of Working Poor Invisible in America, writes that "virtually everything worthwhile written about American poverty is essentially about moral failure. It is the failure of the society (according to liberals) or of the poor themselves (according to conservatives)."

Conservatives generally see income inequality as arising because individuals fail to seize the opportunities afforded to them; they emphasize that it is not about equality of results when it comes to income inequality. While liberals may acknowledge that some folks "make bad choices," they see institutions thwarting the realization of the American Dream for many regardless of how hard they are willing to work. They agree with this statement in the Poverty Benchmarks 2015 report issued by the Legal Services of NJ Poverty Institute: "Countless economic and qualitative social science studies substantiate that most [who live in poverty] do not choose to be poor, nor do many who have the ability to lift themselves out on their own."

Within this context, liberals and conservatives view welfare and food stamps very differently. Conservatives see it as a handout to the "takers," "freeloaders," "parasites" and "leeches" who would prefer to receive benefits rather than work. Liberals see it as a hand up to those who are stuck in the poverty trap and are struggling to make ends meet.

Lately a number of states have begun telling poor families that they can't use their welfare payments for certain extravagances: concerts, sporting events, getting tattoos, buying lingerie, purchasing liquor, gambling, going on cruises, going to the movies, adult-oriented businesses and buying guns and jewelry. I agree with precluding most of these purchases. I would permit attendance at movies, college sports events and swimming for mental health purposes. In this regard, I think Linda Tirado, the author of "Hand to Mouth: the Truth about Being Poor in a Wealthy World," got it right when she wrote that the poor are "never allowed to have anything that you might actually enjoy. It's the hair shirt of welfare." Similarly I think Paul Krugman was correct when he wrote that in some Republican-controlled states "punishing the poor has become a goal in itself."

Conservatives harbor a very special hostility for the food stamp program or, as the program is now called, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Even though the applicant accuracy rate of SNAP is considerably higher than other major benefit programs, beer muscle bloggers are constantly bemoaning seeing someone using food stamps to make purchases they shouldn't be buying, e.g., steak, truffles, lobster.

While there are poor people who are foolish and don't manage their food budgets well, the majority stretch their meager food budgets in ways you can't even imagine The Food Bank of Greater Boston featured a billboard that shows someone at the express check-out line with the message "Imagine if this is all you could afford to purchase!" Anyone who has taken the Food Stamp Challenge knows that the benefits are woefully inadequate and it is literally impossible to not be hungry when shopping using only SNAP ($136 per person per month or $4.53 a day).

In response to their concerns about how recipients spend their benefits, the Trump administration recently released a mean-spirited "bold new approach" that would replace half of monthly benefits with nutritious food-boxes containing shelf-stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butters, beans and canned fruit, canned vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish. Critiques of the proposal have pointed out that the box could not correctly be described as nutritious, since the bulk of the items would be carbohydrates. From a budgetary perspective they would trim SNAP by $213.5 billion or 30 percent over 10 years. The plan does not describe how the "USDA Harvest Boxes" would be distributed or how the kits would be assemble to meet the needs of client families. The Trump administration has signaled that it is considering rule changes that would strengthen the work requirements for SNAP in high unemployment areas that previously have been exempted from stricter work rules.

Instead of focusing on the purchase of luxury food items by SNAP recipients, there should be discussion about whether SNAP recipients should be allowed to purchase unhealthy soft drinks and junk food. These items will never be precluded from the authorized purchase list because of the enormous political power of companies like PepsiCo and Frito-Lay.

Likewise there should be an outcry that there is no means available to aid those who have hit rock bottom in America. The authors of a new book on extreme poverty in America entitled, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, report out of necessity "too many families at the very bottom feel compelled to secure a modicum of cash by trading their SNAP. This isn't good for them, and it's not good for society. Beyond the fact that it's illegal, it's a waste of government money. When Jennifer Hernandez decides she must use some of her SNAP to buy socks and underwear for her kids, or when Alva Mae Hicks trades away her SNAP to pay the utility bill, they lose a whopping 40 to 50 percent in purchasing power. And as result, they and their children go hungry."

America is greater than this.