A recent article focused on an Atlanta food bank that provided 45 million pounds of food to needy families in 2013, and it expects a significant increase in demand if the proposed cut in food stamps is enacted by Congress. Apparently food banks everywhere are anticipating this same predicament: too many clients, not enough food.
It got me to thinking about the programs under intense bombardment by many politicians: food stamps and unemployment benefits. The gist of the argument against them is easy to understand: 1. It’s their own fault. If you need food stamps you just need to work harder and earn more money; and 2. if you are out of a job, get off your duff and go find one. Anyone who wants to work can find a job.
The underlying principle girding this position is also simple: recipients of these benefits are parasites. They are the class of “takers” not “makers.” The argument usually goes one step further. The programs themselves are not helpful to the recipients, and actually harmful because they erode the motivation to work harder or engage in self-improvement, and make it easier to slide by and not engage in aggressive job seeking. Take away all this free stuff and these “takers” will be motivated to become “makers.”
Here’s where I get confused. Opponents of these programs tell us they stifle ambition and kill motivation. Now go back a couple of years when the president pushed for a tax increase for those at or near the top 1 percent of taxable income.
According to a Jan. 28 article in The Times, those with taxable incomes above $398,350 “suffered” a slight increase in federal income tax. Our friends against food stamps and unemployment benefits went into a frenzy. Imposition of an incremental increase in the tax obligation, they say, will kill motivation. These high earners will quit being “makers.”
They are dead wrong! They don’t understand the mindset of those who have the talent and motivation to have a taxable income of about $400,000, and who will shoot for $500,000 or $600,000 the next year regardless of whether taxes go up 2 percent or 3 percent.
Here’s another idea. That tax increase on the high earner may very well serve to be a stimulus to the economy. Assume the high earner owns a successful business. A smart high earner is going to ladle out employee bonuses (tax deduction), invest in capital equipment (tax deduction), buy himself a new company car (tax deduction) or maybe train employees (tax deduction). Every one of these moves reduces the tax burden and infuses cash into the economy.
How does increasing pain and anxiety for those at the bottom of the economic ladder while enacting policies that lead to institutionalized privilege create a more humane and democratic society?
If the food stamp program is an evil mechanism that creates dependency and stifles motivation, are all these nobly motivated food banks also undermining society by encouraging dependency? No sensible human being would answer yes to that question.