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Letter to the Editor: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes

By Bob Kingsley


Set to the background of a mournful piano melody, a stoic, authoritative voice on the radio public-service announcements tells us in hushed, reverent tones, that the person next to us in the car, or perhaps our office mate down the hall, or even one of our kid’s friends, all suffer with hunger.

We are told that 1 in 6 do not know from where their next meal is coming. Yet while the radio ads mournfully drive this point home, the fact is that America’s poor are also the most obese, dependent, and addicted subset of our citizens.

So how can this all be true?

The Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse, known as CHOW, is one of the most familiar and widely supported local charities in Broome County. Founded in 1976, this organization provides and distributes food throughout Broome County, presumably for those in need. But what actually happens is often quite different.

Those seeking CHOW handouts are in no way means tested. The only limitation is a loosely enforced once-a-month allowance for participation, but with no system in place that effectively monitors activity at the 30-some distribution locations. This lax oversight allows individuals wide latitude in visiting multiple locations to receive repeated allotments of food.

A group of college kids, holed up in one of their grandmother’s homes after she was admitted to a nursing home, regularly seeks and receives free CHOW food to stock the pantry of their squatters’ digs. All able-bodied boys in their early 20s, I asked them if they thought this was right. Through strained smiles and nervous shuffles betraying a hint of guilt, they laughed it off as easy and fun.

In addition to food pantries, CHOW operates more than a dozen soup kitchens that again require no means testing and serve food seven days a week to anyone who shows up. For the kids, schools provide free breakfast and lunch as well. A resourceful person can find at least one meal a day, every day, served up fresh and hot — no questions asked and with no accountability and no effect on their other benefits.

Virtually anyone who is in true need of CHOW’s services certainly qualifies for food stamps (now known as SNAP or, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). More than 45 million Americans are SNAP recipients, which basically provides qualified applicants a food credit card, courtesy of the taxpayers. This federal program is designed to provide the essentials for recipients’ entire nutritional needs, so why do we continue to supplement governmental programs with redundant private ones?

Unfortunately, when the needy get greedy, these well-intended efforts become the tools of the unscrupulous. The same kind-heartedness that it takes to conceptualize, create, and operate such humanitarian endeavors also many times yields to a naivety, resulting in a blind spot that is oblivious to wrong-doers and manipulators of the system, of which there are many.

“Carol” recently intercepted me in front of a popular grocery store in Binghamton. She offered to “shop” with me and provide my groceries for 50 cents on the dollar, via her SNAP benefit card. Judging by Carol’s demeanor and unkempt presence, it was not difficult or arbitrary to conclude that she was an active drug user, seeking cash for her habit.

In the same store, a couple of weeks later, while in line, I observed two young ladies ahead of me with a grocery cart filled with 2-litre bottles of soda and bags of snack foods. As car keys dangled from one girl’s purse, I saw membership cards to a local, high-end health club as well as the tanning salon located right next door. I watched them line up the items on the conveyor belt and I observed one of the women pull out a SNAP card and slip it in into the card-reader. As she did this, I could plainly see the photo on the card, clearly a middle-aged man with grey hair and a beard. After the young ladies left the store and I began my cash transaction with the teenage cashier, I asked her why the store did not apparently care about who was using the SNAP cards. She told me, with a straight face, that it made no difference. She went on to tell me that her “mother’s boyfriend uses her card all the time.”

Upwards of 70 percent of the income in some local grocery stores is attributable to SNAP and other forms of welfare payments, according to a management source who requested anonymity. Because many stores are so heavily dependent upon SNAP and other forms of welfare for their very financial survival, they have no incentive for voicing their concerns about misuse.

Not quite believing what I was hearing regarding the use of others’ SNAP cards, the next day I phoned the Broome County social services office to get some clarification. The gentleman who fielded my inquiry explained that anyone can indeed use anyone else’s SNAP card, provided of course that they are getting the items for the use of that card holder.

The U.S. is the only country in the world where the neediest and poorest are also the most overweight and obese. How can this be? Even as all of these programs go on, those radio ads continue telling us that 1 in 6 of us do not know from where our next meal is coming. This newest form of politically correct, fuzzy logic in search of a problem, is known as “meal uncertainty.” When seen in its entirety, this strains all logic.

Well-meaning volunteers and donors take pride and satisfaction in feeling like their efforts keep people from going hungry. This sense of accomplishment is self-fulfilling and rewarding, more so in this case to those providing the charity, than in many cases those taking advantage of it. CHOW and all of the soup kitchens should be means tested. When the needy partake of a meal in a soup kitchen, and their kids eat two of three meals at school, SNAP benefits ought to reflect that and be adjusted accordingly.

Certainly, taxpayers do not expect SNAP beneficiaries going into the market and buying designer cuts of steak or lobster tail, but under the system as it works today, there is no limit on the types of foods that recipients can choose.

This program would be more credible and more likely embraced by thoughtful taxpayers if it actually encouraged proper nutrition. Individuals signing up for SNAP benefits should be provided an assortment of available items that are nutritionally appropriate for their familial circumstances, limited to the basic, nutritional requirements of that family. These items should also be restricted to include only the most affordable brand available. Taxpayers ought to be getting the best value for their tax dollars while these families receive the proper nutrition.

Because of the modern computer-scanning devices used in the checkout lines of most stores, the buying habits of all SNAP recipients is already a known fact packed away in a database somewhere. But the sad reality is the government cares nothing about the dietary habits of recipients because it needs them to stay happy not nutritious. Not only is the government using other people’s money to buy SNAP recipients food, but it is also purchasing their undying devotion by way of their votes. It’s trading re-election for dependence, which is the real-life example of the adage, not biting the hand that feeds you.

When many SNAP recipients are overweight, obese, or addicted, able to convert forms of human compassion into money for their habits, we have not only failed to address the core issues of poverty and hunger, but we have also unwittingly built a system ripe for being taken advantage of by encouraging people to be dependent.

As usual, the unintended consequences have completely overwhelmed the programs’ original intent. And liberal political leaders, so hell-bent on controlling everyone’s life, have no sense of responsibility in accepting that they are not only a part of the problem, but they are also the source and cause of it as well.

On a recent trip to Mexico City, I was swarmed by peasant children when I wandered too far from my hotel one evening. Looking into the eyes of a truly hungry child leaves one with no doubt about their desperate need. There is no uncertainty in your mind about their plight in life. Seeing dirt and grime worn hard into the pores of a person’s skin, so sufficiently stained as to never be clean, leaves no room for reservations about lending a hand. Back home, watching overweight, obnoxious drug addicts, proudly gaming the system in America, makes me sick for the rest of the truly needy in this world.

As the poet Kahlil Gibran said, “The mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.” And so too apparently is the greatness of America to the dependent class we have unfortunately fomented into seeming permanence.

Bob Kingsley
Port Dickinson, NY


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