The Food Stamp Messiah

January 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments
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As I am writing this, South Carolinians are going to the polls, perhaps making Newt Gingrich the front-runner in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. But I am still chewing on his comments about President Obama being the “food stamp president.” As Gingrich said to Juan Williams in the debate Monday night, “The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history…”

I have nothing to say about the rhetorical construction of Gingrich’s claim–about his implication that Obama is somehow forcing people onto the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nor will I comment on the inaccuracy of Gingrich’s facts, or the racist underpinnings of his commentary, both of which the media has dealt with.

Instead, I want to address a question to Mr. Gingrich from one Roman Catholic to another: how can you, as a Christian, oppose feeding the hungry? I know, I know, you say it’s better for people to have jobs. But the point is, there aren’t jobs; this is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And you know as well as I do that the requirements for getting food stamps are stringent; Americans receiving food stamps–many of them already employed in low-paying jobs, let’s be clear–have far less money, allowing for inflation, than the working class family I grew up in ever had. I am, to use an old-fashioned term, scandalized that a person claiming to be a Catholic would talk this way about feeding the hungry in order to win an election.

This way of talking is especially shocking to me as a Roman Catholic Christian because the miracle in which Jesus feeds a huge number of hungry people–“the multiplication of the loaves and fishes” as it’s called–is the most important miracle story in the New Testament. How do we know this? Because it’s the only miracle story to appear in all four of the Gospels; in point of fact, it appears twice in Mark’s Gospel.

Now Speaker Gingrich, not a person to lose a debate, would probably say here that there’s no resemblance between the people Jesus fed and the people President Obama has seduced into living off food stamps in lieu of work. The people in the Gospel story were just so mesmerized by Jesus that they walked out into the desert by mistake; if they could have gotten back to their homes, they’d have had plenty to eat.

I would point out, however, that Jesus said nothing to his disciples about checking the photo IDs of those lining up for bread and fish, or about making sure that nobody was hiding food under their cloaks, thus not deserving any more. “I have compassion on the crowd,” is what he said (Mk 8:2). In point of fact, the vast majority of the people Jesus ministered to were poor; and he didn’t have much good to say for the rich, either.

We hear a lot about Speaker Gingrich going to the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the biggest Catholic church in the country,  to hear his wife sing in the massed choir that performs there. But this is not what generally goes on in Catholic churches across this country and around the world. What goes on is that ordinary men and women come to those churches hungry, and confess their sins, and hear a story about Jesus, and then are fed, week, after week, after week. Nobody ever tells us that we’re lazy, that we need to get a job, or that we should learn to feed ourselves.

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  1. The point is not about feeding the hungry, it is about creating an environment that is conducive to job growth and expanding the economy so that people can get jobs and live a productive and financially secrue live. Obama has no clue about that, as the results of the past 3 years demonstrate.

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    • David, this is the rationale I hear so often. This is fine for those of us who have jobs and food in the meantime, but I’m not sure that someone who is waiting for that job to develop would agree that she/he wants to stay hungry while waiting.

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      • No one wants him to stay hungry. Food stamps are needed and most likely will always be needed. Obama wants to eliminate the food stamp program. His goal is a good job for every American. Should that goal be achieved wouldn’t it be clear that food stamps are no longer needed?

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  2. “I am, to use an old-fashioned term, scandalized that a person claiming to be a Catholic would talk this way about feeding the hungry in order to win an election.”

    I had thought about engaging you as a fellow Catholic and ask you if you has also written an article about how the money used to cover up the “shepherds” abusing the “lambs” could have been better used to feed the poor but decided since most if not all of these “shepherds” followed your line of compassion, you would not understand my point.
    I had thought about asking you if it was the lofty “intent” of the grandiose plan that mattered or tne actual reality of the plan mattered most. But then I realized to you the idea of a war on poverty was what mattered and not the fact that 40 years of Government planning has worsened the problem. Or that Head Start programs show no difference in education by the 4th grade.
    Both good and lofty ideas but failures on the actual level.

    But then I decided, perhaps all I could offer to a moral busybody was this quote by CS Lewis that says it best. I realize that you will write me off as a rightwing unsympathetic person. And I will freely admit to you, that your view may indeed be the right “Catholic” view. I guess we will have to wait until judgement day to find out if we are “sheep” or “goats”. That is a decision I leave up to the “Shepherd”.
    I don’t like some of what Newt says, but I see a willingness to ask hard questions and try different things.

    i don’t see that from the other side. I will be a little presumptuous here and say theat I suspect you voted for Obama the first time around and will reluctantly vote for him again even though his true views on Abortion and the state that he has placed the country and the world in goes against “Catholic teaching”. But then we are mainly concerned with ideas and intentions not facts right? Let us see if you are “Catholic” enough to post this comment. Here is that quote, you alone will have to determine if the shoe fits you.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    C. S. Lewis

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  3. There are many points in your post with which I disagree, but I’ll mention a few for brevity. First, I’m a practicing Catholic. Second, I do believe it is the personal responsibility of Christians to feed the poor. Thirdly, your attempts to make light of the current administrations contribution to poverty are clearly partisan.
    Bush along with anyone who served in Congress over his 8 year presidency is partially responsible for housing bubble crash of 2008. While it is true that this past recession was the worst since the Depression, it is not true that it needed to be. We know much more about stabilizing and restoring economies now than then. Despite what one might read on Wikipedia, having a large segment of your population on SNAP is not conducive to economic recovery. It may stabilize demand for food products, but it provides precious little incentive to create a job of your own or get a new job.
    Finally, it is simply not true that more people went on food stamps or descended into poverty under Bush than Obama. Please don’t mistake me. Bush does bear some responsibility for his poor leadership in the buildup to the crisis, but the present administration has been exceptionally poor at creating an environment that will encourage job creation. That is the sense in which he is a “food stamp” president. Those who cry “racism” at Gingrich’s criticism should be ashamed. There are plenty of people of all ethnicities (including whites) who are on food stamps…I see them every day. There is an official government report entitled “Household Food Security in the United States in 2010″. It is an excellent source to get some idea of the mess we face.

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    • Those who cannot see the the implicit, coded racism in Gingrich’s comments should research the Southern Strategy, particularly a little interview Lee Atwater gave on the subject where he admits that comments about welfare/food stamps, etc, like Gingrich’s are a direct discursive descendant from the overtly racist rhetoric of the Southern Strategy.

      And, no, Bush should be held responsible for the Great Recession. Obama inherited this mess. To suggest otherwise is the same petty partisanship you accuse the author of, only her statements are based in fact and the Gospels, while yours are based in a fantasy world.

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  4. Excellent analysis of what appears to be the lack of compassion for the poor in the political debates of Republican presidential candidates today in the US. I would choose to side with Jesus and provide food and resource to any who are needy without ifs and or buts. Would that we that we had someone who would provide moral leadership in addition to being concerned about economic realities.

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  5. Here is a simplified version of my original post:

    Obama: “I am taking by force some of the pie you earned (through labor/intelligence, etc.) and giving it to someone else, who did not earn it: there is a finite pie,and you are selfish to keep so much of it. By the way, vote for me because I seized the pie on your behalf.”

    Gingrich: “I am going to grow the pie, so more can have a piece: a growing pie is truly ‘loaves and fishes’, not a metaphor. Vote for me, because I will make it more possible for you to earn a piece of that pie.”

    Lesson for Marian Ronan: Jesus didn’t seize loaves and fishes from one to give to another. Christian charity cannot begin with a seizure, even by Obama.

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    • Lesson for Bruce: Jesus “seized” the loaves of the little boy in one of the feeding stories and from his disciples in another (after having told them not to bring any food with them). And then proceeded to feed everyone rather than allowing everyone to go hungry.

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      • “Seized” how? Verses please; KJV, of course….

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      • The text says Jesus took the loaves from the little boy in John. The Greek word implies Jesus taking aggressively and assertively from the boy, that Jesus actively took hold of the bread in an assertive or aggressive way, that it was Jesus’ choice, not the boy’s, to use the loaves.

        I hope you were joking about the KJV.

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  6. The conservative posters continue to try to posture this issue as a made-up Obama (use the government to take from “job creators” and give to lazy, nonworking parasites) vs. hypothetical free market lovers of liberty (get the government off our backs and we will create prosperity). Both positions are absurd. The “free market” system is a complex web of government-created and -imposed rules that benefit certain parties. So, for example, the 15% tax rate on capital gains and dividends benefits those who can generate capital gains and dividends. The companies that turned to Gingrich in his capacity as “advisor” (not lobbyist!) did so to get a better deal from the government, and to have more influence/access as these rules as being made up by what they hope will be a Congress of like-minded “job creators”. Same point can be made with respect to Santorum, who worked the system every which way as a lobbyist once he left office. (Ask folks in Pittsburgh about his getting funding for schooling his kid from a Pittsburgh school district while he was living in D.C.) There is no “neutral” system, all rules benefit or harm certain parties and the right simply wants “more.” (more money, more influence, more, more more). The flat tax proposals are a classic example of this— a clear and direct attempt by certain parties to obtain “more” from the system (flat tax proposals benefit the rich by reducing their marginal tax rates on ordinary income while, under some proposals, reducing the capital gain/dividend tax rate to 0%) while wrapping that attempt to get “more” in some sort of “moral” argument (i.e., the claim that it is unfair in some moral sense for people who have higher incomes to pay higher marginal tax rates) So, just state your point directly, e.g., we feel we are better, more productive people than the poor and deserve to live in a system that protects our interests and does little to assist the people who are least able to care for themselves. (And, while you’re at it, give us a good NT exegesis that supports such a view…. render under Gingrich the things that are Gingrich’s?)

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  7. As to who’s on food stamps (from a recent Business Week article):

    About 34 percent of food-stamp recipients are white, while 22 percent are African Americans and 16 percent Hispanic, with the rest being Asian, Native American or those who chose not to identify their race, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About half are younger than 18, and 8 percent are older than 60. Some 41 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed.

    Note that about half are under 18— probably have never worked for Bain Capital.

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  8. I’m not sure that there are any passages in the gospels that teach us that respecting the principles of laissez faire capitalism ought to take precedence over meeting the needs of the poor.

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    • Charity is not force.

      Who, exactly is “poor”? What, exactly, are the “needs of the poor”? Is a person/family “poor” having 2 cars (newer ones at that) and a flat screen, the purchase of which was subsidized by under the table cash, free government feeding programs of one kind or another (including now in some places 3 meals for the kiddies, even in the summer) free healthcare, subsidized housing, and the list goes on. You are kidding yourself if you think this is not a widespread problem.

      Is it moral/just to tax low income honest minorities/whites, at the margin not eligible for the above (who do not want to cheat to get them) so that a politician can “give” it to the ever expanding definitional “poor”? And ask for the”poor” to vote for him/her?

      Should the “poor” have the vote, so as to form a self-interested, ever expanding voting block, appealed to by cynical politicians (who are ever-eager to find more goodies to pass out) for more votes?

      Should we look to the EU for tax and spend policy. That appears to not have gone too well….

      Should a more wealthy person/family be taxed to such an extent that second jobs must be taken, higher education sacrificed, travel given up, and a thousand more sacrifices (large and small) so that the “poor” may have 2 cars and a flat screen? You are kidding yourself if you think this is not a widespread problem.

      Approximately 50% of the adult population do not now pay income tax. Perhaps, to “serve the poor”, we should subsidize 60%, 65%, 70%?

      Perhaps we should run up more crushing debt, up to ruination, to provide more for the “poor”.

      If 100% of the income from the “wealthy” 1% is seized, it will hardly make a dent…

      Or, perhaps we should look for more effective ways to make the pie grow. You can’t make that happen by taking from A to give to B.

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      • Should Bruce stop asking rhetorical questions with faulty assumptions as a means of making an incoherent point?

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  9. I was going to start reading your blog on an ongoing. But I have a hard and fast rule- While it is your blog and I respect your right to edit as you see fit, it is my right to read as I see fit.
    Where the editor removes unfavorable comments and leaves the favorable comments, one should be wary. I am now wary.
    Too bad, I might have liked some of what you said. Goodbye

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