Over my coffee yesterday morning I read the AL.com reader comments on a post about food stamps. I can’t help but take a moment to weigh in on the flawed argument that embarrassing those who need government assistance is how we address the ever-growing reliance on much-needed support. To understand my thoughts on the issue, though, I think it’s important you know who I am and where I came from.
The short version: I know too well about poverty and hard times because I saw it firsthand growing up and again when I left home for college with very little money of my own.
I am one of three kids of a mother who had us all between the ages of 16 and 20. My mother and stepfather spent most of my life working minimum-wage jobs at places like Pizza Hut, Walmart and grocery stores.
I know about the shame and stigma of food stamps because my parents struggled to get on and off of them for years. This was back when food stamps resembled coupon books rather than debit cards. When we were off them my stepfather — one of the kindest, hardest-working men I’ve ever met — would often work two to three jobs at once.
When I left for college, I rode 300 miles on an overnight Greyhound bus alone to get to orientation. I became the only child in my family who graduated high school and the first in my extended family to go to a four-year university. I worked odd jobs from day one, until a part-time job counting cars on the side of the road led to a full-time job in transportation statistics.
I write this to give context to my beliefs before anyone of you says that since I’m Republican or, worse, a tea-party Republican, I must not get it.
I’ve heard it all before: I must have no heart. I can’t possibly understand. I’m mean and cruel and out of touch. The fact is I do know. I do get it. My first two decades spent in and around the cycle of poverty convinced me that we need to do better.
That requires an honest conversation without partisan politics and name calling. We’ve got to look for solutions to strengthen families and encourage them to do more and to do better. Just because I’m Republican, I don’t want people to starve and be homeless any more than I believe that all Democrats think people should have everything handed to them.
This rhetoric on both sides keeps us from crafting local, state and federal policies and encouraging the community action that would make a real difference in those who need temporary aid.
We need comprehensive welfare reform. Period. Anyone who says what we’re doing now is working isn’t paying attention. According to a 2013 Cato report that analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture data related to food stamps, “roughly 48 million Americans receive (such) benefits, costing taxpayers more than $78 billion per year.” Yet according to the USDA, nearly 18 million American households remain “food insecure.” This means an estimated 18 million American households have inconsistent access to food and don’t eat regularly. This fact should lead to a heartbreaking wake up call that we need to do better.
Shame isn’t the answer. Those who need help are often already ashamed to ask for it, and those who are abusing the system are beyond shame. When you and everyone you know have a government-issued cell phone, food stamps and other government assistance, you’re not worried about shame. Children are brought up only knowing that they live in a system that provides barely enough to get by.
What I long for is a world where the cycle of poverty isn’t accepted and repeated generation after generation. Those who live like this are what most people think of when they think of welfare.
Instead, we need to return to what welfare (in all of its many forms) was intended to be: a stop-gap for those who hit a rough time and need help to get back on their feet. Today’s letters were related to food stamps, but food stamps are just a symptom of a bigger problem.
We need to promote community education projects for those vulnerable to continued use of government assistance to learn healthy financial management and strategies to break the cycle. We need people in our communities to answer pleas for help with more than a free phone or food stamps.
We need to promote job training and dropout prevention programs that will help those who want to help themselves. We need to elect men and women who know that the government isn’t the answer.
Our welfare problem is bigger than food stamps; it goes to the core of what we want our nation to be. An honest discussion is the only way to address our real problems and open the door to the American Dream for everyone.
Apryl Marie Fogel is a new Alabama resident who works as a conservative political activist.