Stigmatizing Hunger – A SNAP Decision

Order this and other biblically-based social justice posters from LA artist John August Swanson

Many millions of hungry people got fed, effectively and cost-efficiently, choosing the food they needed in supermarkets like anyone else.  Farmers and shop-keepers made money.  When the economy was good, fewer people used the program; when the economy was in the dumps, more people were helped by it.  What was not to love about the Food Stamp/EBT/SNAP federal food subsidy program?  It has been one of the most sensible and successful legacies of the War on Poverty in the 1960’s.

That was before Republicans got their hands on it and started cynically imposing work requirements on its recipients — people who need the program precisely because they are either unable to work or cannot find adequate employment.  Trump wants to shrink the program dramatically with draconian obstacles to participation in SNAP.  Enforcing these cumbersome rules will reduce the fiscal efficiency of this powerful poverty-prevention program.  More money will go to bureaucrats and a lot less to hungry people.  Having slashed taxes on the rich and on corporations, the Republicans are whining that the government can’t afford to help the millions of people on the economic margins. 
But Adam Smith himself, capitalism’s most famous interpreter, recognized that it inevitably leaves a lot of people in the dust, requiring government intervention to support them.  There is nothing “conservative” about being in denial of this fact.  The imperative of the Christian gospel, as well as common sense, impel us to maintain effective public systems that protect our most vulnerable citizens from bad outcomes that capitalism causes and cannot alleviate.

If poverty is stigmatized – if disabled, under- and unemployed, and low-income elderly people are “othered” out of the category of “hard-working Americans”- it is politically easier for Republicans to destroy successful governmental poverty-prevention programs.  By couching their slash-SNAP plan under the false goal of promoting employment, they imply that SNAP recipients are a separate underclass of the lazy that can be ignored.  They equate poverty with moral failure.  This fiction is fed by “prosperity gospel” theology, which says that faithful Christians will prosper, and implies that poverty is a sign of faithlessness.  Prosperity preachers are Trump’s favored religious acolytes.  When they laid hands on him in blessing as he began his presidency, it amounted to a curse on tens of millions of struggling Americans.

This curse is not only bad religion.  It’s bad economics.  A foundational quality of capitalism is that nobody is in charge of it.  So market failures are not moral failures.  Depressions, recessions, inflation, deflation, and big gaps or cuts in the labor force are painful but normal perturbations in the “free market” system.  Millions of people are badly harmed by this system, through no fault of their own.  But our political leaders are moral failures when they refuse to solve the problems created by market failures.  If Republicans are so excited about defending the capitalist system, then they should do all in their power to protect its reputation by defending a robust system of public social insurance.  But they are so hell-bent on dehumanizing those left behind by market forces that they are wrecking people’s trust in capitalism.  Theirs is a cynical political game with no winners.

On moral, spiritual, and practical grounds, we are called to resist this outrageous cutback – in the name of the just-launched POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN.   Write your member of Congress now to protest the Republican SNAP-cut plan.  And become “votivators”, inspiring your family, friends, and neighbors to elect a new, morally-awakened Congress, come November.   (I’m volunteering with this campaign:  Marge Doyle RN for CA 8th District, US Congress….)

Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG   Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

Review & Commentary