RALEIGH — Have you noticed all the food stamp commercials that seem to be airing lately? I hear them a lot, and they go something like this: “You may think you won’t qualify for food stamps, but you might. Eligibility is wider than you think. Check it out. You never know what you might be able to get.”
A lot about that seems wrong to me. I think if you asked most people whether we want more or fewer people on food stamps, they’d say fewer. Regardless of what you think about government welfare programs, surely we all agree that it would be better if fewer people needed food stamps, right? Our goal shouldn’t be to get as many people as possible onto food stamps; it should be for as few people as possible to need them.
And then there was this interesting piece in the Washington Examiner Aug. 27.
More Americans rely on their families for assistance than the government, so federal officials have undertaken an effort to help people to apply for federal assistance.
“Given that only 15 percent of you turn to government assistance in tough times, we want to make sure you know about benefits that could help you,” USA.gov announced today. The “government made easy” website has created a “help for difficult financial times” page for people to learn more about the programs.
The government got that statistic from a poll asking Americans what helps them the most during tough times. Here are the results:
• Savings 44%
• Family 21%
• Credit cards/loans 20%
• Government assistance 15%
“Government assistance comes in different forms — from unemployment checks and food assistance to credit counseling and medical treatment,” USA.gov reminded readers.
This leg of the financial assistance push has ended. “Although our campaign to highlight Help for Difficult Financial Times has ended, we know that your struggles may continue,” said USA.gov today. “We will keep updating the tools and information we provide to help you get back on your feet.”
So, wait a minute. Is USA.gov saying that all these people relying on savings and family instead of government assistance is a bad thing? Are they saying they want more people to look to the government for help? Because that's kind of what it sounds like.
When I look at those survey results, I have a very different reaction than that of USA.gov. According to those responses, when people get into tough times, the first two places they go are savings and family. That’s precisely as it should be.
First, people are working, saving, and taking responsibility for themselves. When times get tough, they tap in to the resources they’ve put aside for a rainy day. That’s what my parents taught me to do as a child, and it’s a lesson that’s served me well as an adult. I’m glad — and I must say a little surprised — to see that 44 percent of people say they are taking responsibility for themselves in that way.
And after self-sufficiency? If people haven’t put enough aside for the needs that arise? What then? According to this survey, people go to their families, and that is a good thing. Strong societies exist where people have solid relationships, where they have networks of families, friends, churches, and communities. And when people look to those sources for help, they get personal, individual help that addresses physical needs and often emotional needs as well. It’s help that is based on love, compassion, grace, and generosity. Those are all things I’d like to encourage.
Government assistance, on the other hand, is based on compulsion and a sense of entitlement. None of us has a choice about whether we pay the taxes that pay for all of these government programs, and the general attitude of many recipients seems to be that all the things they receive from the state are somehow owed to them. There’s no human emotion, no connection, no nurturing of people. It’s all just cold formulas and eligibility criteria.
I prefer my charity warm. I like living in a society where real people help each other rather than looking first to bureaucracy. I think we’re better off when people are able to call a friend or a brother instead of fighting through the red tape of a government hotline. So rather than pushing government programs on people, let’s celebrate the fact that people are first helping themselves and each other. Those are signs of a strong society. Long may they continue.
Julie Gilstrap is Research Publications Coordinator for the John Locke Foundation.