Monday, December 29, 2008

If Only We'd Learned this Lesson Before!

I am almost always optimistic when facing a new year. But its no surprise we face tremendous challenges as we look forward to 2009.

Last year more than 36 million people were classified as food insecure. That means that these were 36 million people whose economic condition was such that they had to resort to skipping meals. For our math wizards out there that's more than 10% of the country. That figure includes 690,000 children and 780,000 seniors. If our experience at Central Dallas Ministries is any indication, no one rushes proudly to announce themselves as a part of this demographic. Nor are there statistically a significant number of people who are so iniquitous as to try and fraudulently be included in this number to get food for their families. I think its safe to say that the numbers have some meaning.

That was last year. The New York Times reports that this year, in September, more than 31 million people (a million more than last year) filed for food stamps. The reason for the increase? You guessed it, an economy on the precipice of collapse.

When we talk about bailouts, government assistance, welfare, whatever label you want to put on it, there are new people who are joining the list. The Washington Post found "...2 out of 5 [people seeking government assistance in one Florida county] were newcomers at seeking the government safety net. Many had recently slid from the middle class because of the subprime-mortgage debacle and rising unemployment." You can read the NYT report here.

Some years ago, our country patted itself on the back for ending 'welfare as we know it'. The assumption was that people were taking advantage of 'the system' and the answer was to give limited access to welfare and food stamps. The answer was work. Often low wage dead end jobs to get people off the public dole.

Interestingly enough, one of the proposals for the new administration's stimulus package is to increase access to food stamps. Turns out that each dollar the government spends on food stamps returns $1.84 to the economy. Imagine that. Not letting people go hungry is not only humanitarian, it's sound fiscal policy!

We need to be thinking about this, if estimates are true that unemployment could reach as high as 9% and as many as an additional 10 million people could be classified as poor in our country.

Oddly enough, there are a number of states not thinking this way. Another NYT column says:

"Meanwhile, most states reduced or eliminated cash assistance for single poor adults and limited access to food stamps. Stricter eligibility requirements keep thousands of people from collecting jobless benefits. Facing budget deficits, cash-strapped states will be tempted to cut social programs even more. The experience of being poor in America, never easy, will soon become even more difficult for more people — unless Congress boosts food stamps, modernizes the unemployment compensation system and takes other steps to strengthen the ability of the federal and state governments to help the millions who will need assistance."

Once more it appears that the wisest free market investment that can be made is in people. I wonder where we would have been, if we had discovered this years ago?

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