February 17, 2018

SNAP judgment belittles those in need of food aid

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Among a host of unpalatable ideas in the proposed budget the White House released Monday, Feb. 12, is one so nonsensical and harsh it comes across — as Worcester’s Democratic Congressman James P. McGovern tweeted the next day — like a “cruel joke.”

The proposal would replace part of the nation’s food-assistance program with government-packed and approved boxes, presumably delivered to the doors of the needy.

The doublespeak begins with the lovely sounding name: “America’s Harvest Box.” The contents would be about as dead-on-arrival as this budget item appears to be. Inside these millions of mailings would be things in cans, cellophane, cartons and jars; processed, shelf-stable foods far removed from the farm.

The idea deserves to die on the proverbial vine.

Never mind nutrition, for a moment. Never mind dignity, caring, and allowing individuals to make choices for themselves and their families.

Consider cost alone. Money is the selling point of the plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture. Not that SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — is much more than a drop in the nation’s coffers compared to health care, Social Security and other drivers of our worsening debt.

How could it save money to distribute, far and wide, vast numbers of boxes containing canned fruit, tuna, pasta, cheapo peanut butter, and milk treated so that it can’t start to spoil until opened? Under the proposal, SNAP recipients would still have electronic, debit-like cards to use in local stores, but would receive roughly half their current benefits in the form of these boxes.

The touted $129 billion in bulk-purchase “savings” for the government is spread over 10 years and the projections don’t even account for shipping, according to Politico. And there would be various other costs: local businesses losing some patronage (many mom-and-pop stores in lower-income areas rely on EBT purchases and would wither without them); healthcare impacts because of less access by SNAP recipients to fresh, healthful foods; packaging materials going into landfills; and the need for customizable boxes because of dietary restrictions and food allergies; and cultural issues, something the proposal doesn’t address.

The potential for corruption in awarding contracts for food and packaging on such a large scale is another kind of cost. And administering this program would require personnel and resources that have likely been underestimated, while diverting government energies from what could be more productive efforts.

Costwise, the food-box idea is untenable.

The real problem is not that, though.

The Trump administration’s proposal smacks of something America does not stand for: disdain, mistrust and putdowns of the weak and poor. Good government counteracts the regrettable human tendency to exert and relish power over those who, for whatever reason, are less lucky or advantaged.

Ours is a nation that strives to reach for the highest qualities of human spirit, community, equality and opportunity. It’s up to us to keep renewing these bedrock values, especially when these principles are under attack.

Clearly, SNAP needs to run smoothly, fairly and leanly. It makes sense to root out fraud, revisit eligibility rules, control costs, and try new ways to lift lives and alleviate need and suffering for both the short and long term. These are meaningful and appropriate tasks — and ones for which legislation should lean toward the side of giving rather than denying. It pays to remember that, as our family, friends and neighbors, welfare recipients deserve trust and respect as well as the things money can buy.

And we should all work in the ways we can on building a nation of plenty.

Meanwhile — on SNAP as well as matters ranging from the arts, to the environment, to education and other essentials of the good life on all our tables — Americans hunger for more kindness and wisdom from the White House and the rest of Washington.

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