Sunday, January 08, 2012

Measuring Generosity - Charity and Food Stamps

Because of the length of space devoted to addressing the Boy Scouts and why secular Americans are largely not involved in it, I decided to address my second critique of Putnam and Campbell's American Grace in a separate post.

Again, my intention is not to dispute in its entirety the authors contention that religious people are more generous than secular people, though if any atheist bloggers reading this want to take on the whole enchilada, feel free to take a crack at it. 

Putnam and Campbell write on page 448 of the hardcover edition that "Regular churchgoers are more likely to give to secular causes than nonchurchgoers, and highly religious people give a larger fraction of their income to secular causes than do most secular people."

If that is indeed the case, then all I can say is bravo to you generous religious people.  In a society where donating time and money to worthy causes is a metric for measuring the positive contributions of individuals, those who contribute more than the average are certainly to be commended for their efforts and good works.

As a full time employee and father of two young children, I wish I had more free time to volunteer for causes that were important to me.  During my college years, I was a hotline counselor and I did a stint as a volunteer firefighter around 10 years or so ago before dropping out because my parental responsibilities made it impossible for me to meet my alarm requirements.  I do try to donate blood at least once a year, and last year managed a record five times, one shy of the maximum persmissible in a one year span.  For 2012, my New Years resolution is to repeat the feat (rhyme intended!).  I also make an effort to contribute monetarily to charities such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, as well as local hunger relief organizations like Island Harvest and Long Island Cares

So yeah, volunteering and donating to causes that genuinely help people like hunger relief is wonderful. In these difficult economic times when so many people are out of work and struggling to put food on the table, food banks here on Long Island, among many other places, are being taxed to the limit to meet the increased demand. 

While people volunteer for altruistic reasons, it shouldn't be a surprise that a lot of volunteers are motivated in part by the feelings of self worth they derive from helping others.  In other words, in order for them to derive the satisfaction of helping the needy, they need a pool of people who need help in order to provide them with this experience.   When you are volunteering at a soup kitchen handing a tray with a meal to a hungry person, the volunteer can feel a personal connection to the person who needs that meal and know that at least that night, that needy person will not go hungry and that you were part of the process that made that happen.  But is it the best way to address the problem of hunger in America?

Of course, volunteer food pantries and soup kitchens are not the only ways we try to feed the poor in this country.

One of the best known government programs to provide food assistance to low income Americans is the Department of Agriculture's SNAP program, more popularly known as food stamps.  In order to be able to apply for food stamps, one has to meet certain eligibility requirements, which can be found here

The Food Stamp program, as you probably know, is funded by our tax dollars.  It is probably precisely for that reason that makes it impersonal to us, unlike volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry, where you may very likely be giving the food to the person in need and getting that personal connection.  Unless you have been on food stamps yourself, or know someone personally who has, the only personal involvement you might have is seeing someone using them to purchase groceries ahead of you at the checkout counter at your local supermarket once in a while.  I doubt very many people in this country, when they look at their paystubs, think to themselves "Wow, I'm so glad I am able to contribute a portion of my salary so that the less fortunate in this country can have food stamps and be able to feed their children!"

In Chapter 8, titled The Women's Revolution, the Rise of Inequality, and Religion, Putnam and Campbell note that "68 percent of the most secular Americans favor government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor comprated to 57 percent of the most religious fifth of the populationRoughly two thirds of secular Americans favor increased government aid to poor people compared to 46 percent among the most religious fifth of the population."

The authors go on to add that "highly religious Americans today are somewhat less supportive than the general population of public policies to address poverty and inequality, and they prefer private provision to public action.  They have not worked to stem the growth of inequality, unlike past religious people who, as we have seen, often campaigned passionately for greater equality and social justice."

One can see that reflected in the rhetoric of at least two of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  Gingrich derisively referred to President Obama as the "food stamp president" and recently declared "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps" as if the choice was between food stamps and jobs, when eligibility for food stamps is based on income.  The Frothy One, on the other hand, claimed food stamps were not necessary because so many low income people were obese.

Gingrich and Santorum are among the more vocal culture warriors in the Republican presidential pack, and they were both avidly seeking the evangelical vote in Iowa.   Putnam and Campbell note in their book that the Republican Party is perceived by a large swathe of religious voters as the religion friendly party.  It's rather telling, therefore, that Gingrich and Santorum felt that attacking a well known government program to provide food assistance to needy Americans was part of their message to these voters.   Please note though that I am not trying to say that being an evangelical Christian or devoutly religious person means that such a person is inclined to support eliminating food stamps, but rather that Gingrich and Santorum seem to think it is a message that "values voters" want to hear.  While such a message may not resonate with all of them, unfortunately, it probably does appeal to some of them.

Because of the influence of the Tea Party movement and elements of the Religious Right, advocating government assistance for the needy in the Republican Party has become toxic.   Raising tax rates back to what they were under President Clinton is condemned as class warfare, while shredding the social safety net is praised as fiscal responsibility.  What ends up happening in all of this is that real people, vulnerable people, get hurt.   But you can feel better about yourself if you hand them a can of chicken noodle soup and a box of Cheerios at the food pantry.


Robert the Skeptic said...

I was a Welfare and Food Stamp Eligibility worker in the State of Oregon for a number of years. I can tell you that a significant number of the "values voters" who Gingrich and Santorum are trying to appeal to are probably receiving Food Stamps.

This program has always been a political football, but it stays reigned in mostly because of commercial self interest. Let me explain - unlike Welfare which is under Health and Human Services, SNAP is under the Dept. of Agriculture. It's beginnings was originally called the "Abundant Foods Program"; a way to subsidize the farm and food delivery systems and distribute surplus food that would normally drive down prices.

Let me put it this way: if one were to try to eliminate SNAP, the loudest cries would come from Safeway, ADM, corporate farmers... you get the picture.

Another fast fact for Mr. Gingrich is that an overwhelming majority of Food Stamp recipients WORK, as in they have jobs... that don't pay enough to keep them out of poverty.

I used to process monthly earnings reports from clients which were used to calculate their allotment; far more had paychecks than zero income.

Nicely written post, by the way!

Tommykey said...

Thanks for that info and your kind words, Robert!