Irony and Agriculture

I hope he packed his SNAP Card.

To the interminable list of things that government does not do well, we can now safely add another item: irony.

Writing in Friday’s issue of The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd revealed some interesting statistics about the nature of New York State’s food stamp program. While criticizing Governor Andrew Cuomo for his support of regulations that require recipients of New York State food stamps to submit fingerprints as part of a reformed application process, Ms. Dowd lamented that such an onerous requirement inhibits American families from “getting the help they truly need.” Citing the Governor’s own report, she noted that more than 1.4 million or 30 percent of families in the state fail to receive the benefits for which they are eligible. Rather than explaining how the fingerprinting policy was responsible the lack of participation, however, Ms. Dowd became far too preoccupied with pedantic bouts of asinine moralizing to make the connection apparent. Nonetheless, an implicit association emerged: by making the application more-fraud resistant, Cuomo and his allies in the Statehouse are working ceaselessly to withhold food subsidies from their constituents. 

This editorial comes at a time when Americans’ participation in food subsidy services is at record heights. A graph from a November report (reproduced here), exhibits the meteoric rise in SNAP card recipients to an all-time high of 45.8 million people since October 2007. Currently, nearly 15% of the nation’s citizens receive some form of federal food assistance, and the numbers continue to rise. In light of the pressures on the system, the United States Department of Agriculture (who, as a result of a fluke of history, administers SNAP services), is quite proud of the job it is doing, but I can’t help but notice that its self-regard is more than a little bit hypocritical.

As the body that oversees the U.S Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture is also responsible for the ubiquitous stands of signs and flyers that can be found throughout our national park and forest system. As anyone who has visited these preserves can tell you, one of the most prominently placed warnings cautions visitors against feeding the local wildlife. This request, ostensibly designed to prevent the animals from growing dependent on the largesse of others and becoming unable to fend for themselves in the real world, presents a painful paradox that is only made worse by the stance that Ms. Dowd has taken; it appears that the while the government and The New York Times acknowledge the danger of dependence, they haven’t stopped working to ensure it amongst millions of foodstamp recipients. In rebuking Governor Cuomo for tackling the rampant abuse of SNAP cards that results in nearly $750 million of fraudulent outlays a year, Ms. Dowd has misinterpreted the data in order to mischaracterize the pragmatic and philosophical strengths of our food assistance model as weaknesses that only more government munifence can solve. 

Americans, by and large, are proud and self-reliant people. To most, the idea of dependence upon the taxpayer’s coerced generosity is repugnant and is in and of itself a strong incentive to avoid partaking in food subsidy programs. It is no wonder then, that millions individuals and families abstain from registering for the government’s assistance programs as a way of preserving their autonomous dignity. In many respects, it is the American thing to do. Only at The New York Times, however, would less than total participation in a food subsidy system be seen as a horrible travesty that is the product of a rapacious governor’s conspiracy to keep assistance from the people who need it. Without a shred of supporting evidence, Ms. Dowd and her colleagues have used this assumption to impugn both Mr. Cuomo and his system without just reason or cause, misinterpreting the unwillingness of millions to accept food stamps as their inability to. And to what end?

Society’s urge to assist those in need is indeed commendable; making those same people dependent upon the munificence of the taxpayer, however, is not. Social welfare programs and food subsidies need to be the last line of defense that kicks-in only when the staying-power of individuals and the voluntary magnanimity of the third sector has been exhausted. It should be, above all else, a safety net, and the not hammock it has slowly become.

It is with this in mind, then, that we should cheer the same statistics that The New York Times has appropriated for its distortionary scheme. Rather than stemming from the excesses of system designed to curtail fraud, it appears that absence of maximum food stamp participation is a product of American self-reliance. If the danger of dependence is something that U.S. Forest Service can grasp, why does the same conclusion continue to elude their colleagues at the USDA and The New York Times


— Nicholas P. Desatnick