Three Democratic congressmen are descending from their plush seats of power to gain firsthand experience with the pangs of plebeian hunger. Unfortunately, their political stunt, which is meant to highlight problems with the nation’s welfare program, does little to address the policy changes needed to streamline and bolster outreach for those who need a hand up, not a hand out.
Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland have vowed to limit their personal food spending to $21 for one week — that’s $1 per meal — the average allowance for food stamp recipients. Supposedly this proves their empathy for the financially and nutritionally challenged, and highlights their support for the House-passed farm bill that would boost welfare spending by $4 billion. But this publicity gimmick, however well-intended, does little to address the concerns of President Bush, who has indicated he would veto the bill should it emerge from Congress because it would offset the $4 billion increase by slapping tax penalties on foreign companies invested in the United States.
The week-long food stamp “diet” is spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a group trumpeting the involvement of Mr. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who is eating the food stamp “diet” during Ramadan, as an example of interfaith dialogue. While we admire religious diversity and substantive interfaith conversations, we would rather see useful discussions instead of a cheap public affairs ploy.
What makes this welfare “diet” untenable — and somewhat of a fad since becoming embraced earlier this year by Reps. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, James McGovern of Massachusetts and Timothy Ryan of Ohio — is that it muddles the conversation about welfare.
Thirty years ago tomorrow, national policy-makers launched the welfare program as a supplement, not a sole source, of food for its beneficiaries. Welfare recipients and others qualify for food stamps, which are hardly stamps today but distributed via an electronic benefits card, based on a comprehensive eligibility calculation. Officials at the Department of Agriculture who oversee the program rightfully point out that many of the 26 million Americans on welfare make enough money to qualify for just the bare minimum allowance, indicating they use welfare as an extra means of supporting their families beyond regular earned income.
The House bill, despite its bloated spending increase, does include some commonsense proposals, such as exempting military combat pay, retirement savings and child-care costs, from the eligibility equation. We urge the Senate to adopt these measures while whittling away the $4 billion spending increase that faces a likely veto pen.