Special Report

Pied Pipers of Poverty

In a show of solidarity, Newark Mayor Cory Booker parades the Food Stamp Diet.

By 12.6.12

Send to Kindle

If someone writing for Black Agenda Radio says that Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker is "worse" than Barack Obama, in part because Booker has "railed against wealth distribution" and "is ideologically committed to the privatization of public education and to government that serves the rich," then Booker is probably not the total disaster we have come to expect of big-city Democrat mayors. Some Republicans were no doubt positively disposed toward Booker during the presidential campaign when the mayor criticized an Obama campaign ad that was demonizing Bain Capital.

A writer for the Care2 social action network that emphasizes "a healthy sustainable lifestyle and support(s) socially responsible causes" calls Booker a "superhero" for living in a housing project for eight years and cutting his own salary twice. (He also gets extra points from Care2 for being a vegetarian.)

But what is bringing out this week's plaudits for Booker from commentators throughout the liberal intelligentsia is his announcement, following a November conversation with a conservative on Twitter, that he is going to live on a food budget of $30, the equivalent of being on a food stamps program, for the next week.

Other politicians have participated in the "food stamp challenge," and I have no doubt that many of them are well-intended, as Booker's move may be. But I, for one, am unwilling and unable to judge a policy based on claimed good intentions of its supporters rather than on actual outcomes and compliance with modest philosophical and legal guidelines, such as our Constitution.

What makes Booker's "challenge" appear as a radical leftist publicity stunt, or at least motivated by much more radically leftist views than are often attributed to him, versus simply trying to better understand the plight of the poor is Booker's own language describing his goals:

…to raise awareness and understanding of food insecurity; reduce the stigma of SNAP participation; elevate innovative local and national food justice initiatives and food policy; and, amplify compassion for individuals and communities in need of assistance.

Let's discuss.

Just what is "food insecurity"? This gauzy terminology can mean anything to anyone, but it probably implies for government involvement in food what "affordable housing" meant to the taxpayer disasters caused by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Whenever a liberal talks about "insecurity," it is thinly-disguised code for "something government should provide."

Looked at independently, there are few things the free market does better than provide and distribute food, with an abundance of stores offering great choice, high quality, and low prices -- although prices would be still lower in the absence of government policy to bribe farmers and burn 40 percent of our national corn crop to make ethanol, truly the most insane large government program in my memory. But I digress…

So to the extent that there is "food insecurity," that can't mean anything more than that there is poverty. But just as increasing the size, scope, and cost of welfare programs inevitably increases dependency on welfare, increasing government distribution of food will, like conditioning lab animals to respond to particular stimuli, cause recipients of the "free" food to become ever less self-reliant, ever more wards of the state, and -- getting to the left's true purpose here -- characterized by ever more fealty to the Democratic Party, Giver of Government Cheese.

Nothing begets poverty like the federal government telling people that they are poor, are destined to be poor, that it's nothing to be ashamed of, and that "we're here to help." Furthermore, Census Bureau measurements of poverty are designed to substantially overstate the prevalence of poverty in America. (More on this below.)

Next, Booker wants to "reduce the stigma" of being on food stamps. We've heard that a lot in recent years, with obvious manifestations in such things as changing the name of the program from food stamps to the "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," or SNAP. (Who would want to deny someone "nutrition"?) A telling quote from a New York Times article on the declining stigma of food stamps: "Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster."

It used to be, in the early days of the American welfare state, that going on the dole was a last resort, to be used after exhausting other avenues from self-reliance to family support to mutual aid societies to private charity. Taking government money was something that people would keep private out of a slight sense of shame.

Although he was not speaking of welfare, a quote from Thomas Jefferson is nevertheless apropos: "Dependance (sic) begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." Americans used to know this to be true; it was almost a congenital trait of Americans -- even if not born here -- who knew that American Exceptionalism, that reaching individual and national success and self-sufficiency requires a desire to do so, and that individual success was an antibody, though not a foolproof one, to a metastasizing government.

While I don't want Americans who are on welfare to walk around with a big scarlet "W" on their chests, a little discomfort from the idea of living off other people's money is hard to view as a negative. The opposite -- anything from lack of shame to apparent outright pride in non-self-sufficiency -- is a moral hazard of the highest order, not just to our nation's finances but to the foundation of our nation as a place that encourages and rewards effort and ingenuity more than it salves the emotional and financial bed sores of self-imposed sloth.

Few things are more corrosive to that foundation than efforts to "reduce the stigma" of being a recipient of food stamps or other wealth-redistribution programs. This is not least because the next rhetorical-political step is to demonize as oppressors those who do not support large expansion of the welfare state along with the legalized plunder required to fund it. Again, the entire movement is of a piece with the political aims of the left; thus the enormous growth in the number of food stamp recipients under Barack Obama is anything but a surprise. (This is not to forgive the collaboration of Republicans over the past decade in the "food-stamp boom.")

As Daniel Halper noted last month, since Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration, nearly 15 million people have been added to food stamp roles while fewer than 200,000 net new jobs have been created, allowing the headline "Under Obama, Food Stamp Growth 75 times Greater than Job Creation." Those on the political right may view this as a tragedy and national disgrace, but Obama and friends view it as strategy.

Cory Booker's third stated goal is actually his first, since it is in the title of his blog note announcing his participation in the SNAP challenge: "A Movement Toward Food Justice."

Words like those should send a chill through the bones of any freedom-loving American. They are a toxic stew of the ideas of "insecurity" and "reducing the stigma" pumped up on far-left steroids and spiced with the bitterness of envy. Combating "insecurity" could mean, even if it often doesn't, actual charitable impulse by those who want to help fellow citizens, perhaps through voluntary action. Combating "injustice" is something else entirely, since injustice implies an obligatory, robust, even violent-if-necessary corrective role for government.

Furthermore, if injustice exists, it is implicit that someone is committing the injustice upon others. Thus, the wording is harshly divisive, again in line with what we have seen from the president and his henchmen at all levels of government, fomenting "class warfare" under the false pretense that some people are poor because other people are rich.

Booker says that there is "a legacy of structural inequities in the American food system." What does this mean? Can certain people not walk into Safeway and buy whatever they want to buy whatever food they want to? No, this can only mean that it is "unjust" that some people can't afford certain food while other people can. But where does this logic end? Is everyone entitled to a "nice enough" car, or a "big enough" house, or even smoked salmon instead of fish sticks?

The use of the word "legacy" must also be noted, as it is unsubtle code for a racist society with an historical debt -- apparently to be paid in vittles. This rhetorical construct is intentionally designed to ward whites away from criticizing Booker's policy suggestions and motivations out of fear of being called racist.

Mayor Booker also falls back on the usual leftist line that "we are all invested… and we all benefit" from his "struggle," adding "Now more than ever we are all in this together." Sound familiar?

In fact, we are not all in this together. I may care about the nutrition received by far-away strangers, but I may not. I am under no moral obligation to do so. But this is the implication of the word "injustice" and thus why "injustice" is such a dangerous, and carefully-chosen, lie.

Booker's last stated goal for his "challenge" is to "amplify compassion." It's fine to try to convince people to voluntarily donate their money (or other resources, including time) to a cause you care about. But the redistribution of wealth by government, regardless of the circumstances of the recipient, is not charity. If a mugger gives to charity some of what he takes from me at gunpoint, was I charitable, meritorious, praiseworthy? Was I any less a victim?

Cory Booker's "challenge" represents just the latest step toward the desensitization of Americans to the erosion of our national fisc, our national character, and our national moral fiber caused by the expansion of the welfare state. This erosion is necessarily accompanied by division and demonization that do great harm to us all, but are set plays for the Alinskyite left whose two-pronged intent is to maximize its own political power by maximizing the number of people dependent on government. Making people dependent on politicians for food is one of the most deadly of the poisoned arrows in their political quiver. Once it strikes its human target, that person will likely never fully recover his enthusiasm for productive activity or his self-respect.

The proper direction for our nation is precisely the opposite of the direction in which Cory Booker and other Pied Pipers of Poverty want to lead us, but stopping our decades-long slide into national dependency, much less truly reversing it, will not be easy. After all, as columnist Linda Bowles put it in 1994, "The task of weaning various people and groups from the national nipple will not be easy. The sound of whines, bawls, screams and invective will fill the air as the agony of withdrawal pangs finds voice." Imagine how much stronger the national DTs will be after nearly two further decades of rapid expansion of not only the welfare state but the entitlement mentality.

**************

It is worth a brief mention of "poverty" and "hunger" in America, two ideas that are being hyped nearly daily by supporters of ever-bigger government and their useful idiots in the media. One of the best analysts of this issue is Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose recent note "How Poor is 'Poor'?" goes a long way to explain how the government definition of poor is designed to mis-measure poverty by not counting welfare benefits, including subsidized or free housing, food stamps, and refundable tax credits such as the EITC (transfer payments couched as tax refunds, to those who don't pay income tax anyway), as income.

According to Rector:

In FY 2011, government spent $927 billion on these programs, not counting Social Security and Medicare. Roughly one-third of the U.S. population received aid from at least one of these programs, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient.

But the Census Bureau counts only about 3 percent of this $927 billion as "income" for purposes of measuring poverty. This missing means-tested welfare spending — taxpayer funds spent on the poor but not counted by the Census Bureau for purposes of measuring poverty — exceeds the GDPs of most nations on earth.

Thus, Booker's stunt is based on a myth that the only resources that the poor have to buy food are about $4 per day in food stamps.

As Rector noted in a prior analysis of this topic, only a small fraction of those classified as "poor" are actually unable to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing. When it comes to food specifically, Rector quotes some eye-opening data from a 2009 Department of Agriculture "food security" survey. (That Department oversees the food stamp program.)

  • 96 percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.
  • 83 percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat.
  • 82 percent of poor adults reported never being hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money for food.

It's not just Cory Booker propagating the self-serving myth of national misery: Yesterday, while listening to Sirius satellite radio, I heard Sirius promoting its involvement in a Hungerthon campaign by saying that one in six Americans regularly suffers from hunger, a number that indeed sounds terrible but simply isn't true.

In a speech on Tuesday evening at the Jack Kemp Award ceremony, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered further context to the magnitude of welfare spending in America (and implicitly to the failure of such spending): "Just last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested programs came to over one trillion dollars. What does that mean in practical terms? For that amount of money, you could give every single poor American a check for $20,000 – every man, woman and child."

But with the Census Bureau not counting nearly a trillion dollars of wealth redistribution as income for its recipients, and a willingly gullible media parroting the necessarily corrupt resulting data, it is not surprising that so many Americans believe we are suffering an epidemic of hungry children. Unfortunately, just as when hypochondriacs are given medicine they don't need, the "cure" for our imaginary problem will have very real, and potentially fatal side-effects.

Finally, none of this should be taken as my believing that there are no truly hungry people in our great country. There are, and they are worthy recipients of voluntary aid -- and perhaps even of a government "safety net" with a narrowly prescribed mission and correspondingly limited resources -- particularly to the extent that the able are trying to better their circumstances. However, while government is plundering us to conquer a mythical monster of "food injustice," it is understandable that many feel less charitable toward those who may indeed be most in need of our help.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.