Monday, August 22, 2011

Food Stamps and Hunger: Do We Subsidize Low-Wage Employers?

An article by Kristina Cooke of Reuters, USA becomes Food Stamp Nation but is it sustainable?, provides some interesting issues to consider. Cooke begins by pointing out the growth in coverage required to deal with the needy.

“Altogether, there are now almost 46 million people in the United States on food stamps, roughly 15 percent of the population. That's an increase of 74 percent since 2007, just before the financial crisis and a deep recession led to mass job losses.”

“At the same time, the cost doubled to reach $68 billion in 2010 -- more than a third of the amount the U.S. government received in corporate income tax last year -- which means the program has started to attract the attention of some Republican lawmakers looking for ways to cut the nation's budget deficit.”

It is painful to think that some would see increasing hunger in families, and particularly for children, as a cost saving mechanism. Joel Berg has written an immensely relevant book titled How Hungry is America? He goes into detail on the ramifications involved with allowing a segment of the population to be underfed. He presents this conclusion:

“The high prevalence of food insecurity in America has a devastating impact upon our economy and international competitiveness by increasing our nation’s spending on health care and reducing our productivity and educational performance. Hunger makes it nearly impossible to escape poverty.”

“Not only does hunger impair physical growth and health, but it saps energy and makes it impossible to concentrate, thereby compromising performance at school, work, and home.”

As for the costs associated with Food Stamps, they are small compared to the costs associated with poor nutrition. Berg quotes a study released in 2007 (before the Great Recession) by Dr. J. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The cost burden of hunger in the United States is a minimum of $90 billion annually.”

It would seem that the investment in Food Stamps is the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure.

Cooke also raises an important issue associated with the food subsidy. Whatever the program’s original intent, wages have fallen so low that, as of 2009, the majority of recipients were in households with a wage earner. Any family with an income anywhere near the minimum wage will be eligible for Food Stamps. Food stamps seem to have become a part of normal existence.

“In some parts of the country, shoppers using food stamps have almost become the norm. In May 2011, a third of all people in Alabama were on food stamps -- though part of that was because of emergency assistance after communities were destroyed by a series of destructive tornadoes. Washington D.C., Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon and Tennessee all had about a fifth of their population on food stamps that month.”

It has become common in certain industries to pay low wages and to limit working hours so that the company will not have to pay for benefits. Walmart has been the industry leader in cashing in on this practice. The example of Genna Saucedo is provided. She is described as a “supervisor of cashiers” at a Wal-Mart in California. She is paid $9.70 an hour, but works only 26 hours a week. On the basis of a forty hour week, her pay is equivalent to $6.30, well below the $7.25 minimum wage. In other words she is on Food Stamps for the rest of her life, or until she escapes from the clutches of Walmart.

One can envisage a bean counter inside Walmart management assessing this situation and concluding: Why should we pay them more when the government provides them with Food Stamps; why should we provide healthcare when the government provides Medicaid; why do they need increased income when the government provides an EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit)?” Viewed in this way, these programs have become a subsidy for Walmart and its imitators, allowing them to pay low wages and pocket a greater profit.

Is it possible that these well-intentioned federal programs are helping to propagate a system that keeps wage earners entombed in a near-poverty-level existence? One shudders at the thought.

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