My column got the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
This Saturday, I found myself doing one of those necessary chores that millions of people do every day — grocery shopping. While not my favorite way to pass the time, this occasion provided some enlightenment.
The lines at Woodman’s in Menominee Falls were surprisingly short despite the mass of people shopping on a beautiful day. When we pushed our cart into the checkout lane, there was only one family ahead of us and they were already half done checking out.
They were a lovely family. The small boy sat in the cart swinging his Nikes. The older boy stood by the bagger. He looked athletic and happy in designer jeans and Adidas basketball shoes. The mother was a large woman with a beautiful outfit and glittering jewelry. When the cart was empty, the total came to $246 and change. A quick swipe of the card displayed “food stamps” on the display and the total was knocked down the $3. Another quick swipe of a card by the mother and the total was reduced to $0 with $80 cash back.
It was a frustrating experience. As I stood there in my Wal-Mart shorts and clearance rack shirt, getting ready to purchase my groceries, I was confronted with the reality that I was also going to be buying that family’s groceries along with my own.
What made my experience even more frustrating was the recognition that my little anecdote is not unique. It is an experience shared by hard-working taxpayers all over the country who work hard to pay for their own groceries as well as their neighbors’ groceries. Most people agree that food stamps and other welfare programs are a shared societal responsibility exercised through our government to care for those in our community who are either temporarily fallen on hard times or have some severe permanent disability, but their use by able-bodied people who are using other people’s money for necessities while spending their own money on frivolities is offensive, at best.
The use of food stamps, officially labeled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “SNAP,” in America has exploded to the point that they have become, for many, a lifestyle choice instead of a hand up. The statistics bear this out. During the Great Recession, the use of food stamps grew from 26.3 million people in 2007 to 33.5 million people in 2009. That is a 27 percent increase in two years, but somewhat understandable given the economic circumstances of a deep recession.
Since 2009, however, the use of food stamps has continued to rise. While peaking at 47.7 million food stamp participants in 2013 (four years after the recession ended), there are currently 46.5 million people using food stamps in America. That is a full 77 percent increase in food stamp usage since before the recession and a 39 percent increase since the recession ended. While unemployment has decreased and the economy has strengthened — albeit slowly — the use of food stamps has risen unabated.
The reason for this trend is simple. Our government has intentionally liberalized the standards and softened the enforcement to allow more people to get on the dole — whether they really need it or not.
It is against the backdrop of a seemingly unquenchable growth of welfare that Gov. Scott Walker proposed some more accountability in the distribution of those benefits including work requirements, employability training and even drug testing. These proposals have two primary purposes: The first is to do a better job of ensuring that the benefits go to those who really need them and are withheld from those who do not. The second purpose is to help make the recipients as employable as possible so that they can improve their station in life through the power of their thoughts or the sweat of their brows.
Walker’s welfare reform proposals are modest compared to some of those pushed through by one of his predecessors, Gov. Tommy Thompson. The legislature should consider those proposals a starting point.