Do we really think people choose to be poor?

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

I have spent 50 years as a journalist asking questions, listening to the responses, and closely observing the people and events around me.

Somewhere along the way, my observational skills must have failed me. Apparently, I have missed a lot.

Otherwise, I would have noticed those lines of people eager to join and remain in the ranks of the poor.

You didn’t know people were eager to stay in poverty? Oh, there must be, because some members of Congress believe unworthy people are receiving food intended for poor people.

Why else would Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives be advocating work requirements on the 42 million people in the nation who receive food stamps?

Do they really believe people are passing up good jobs just to receive food stamps? According to the government, Iowa recipients received an average of $110 per month in food per person last year.

Legislation proposed last week would require able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 59 to work or participate in job training for 20 hours per week in order to receive food stamps.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican who leads the House Agriculture Committee, explained the purpose for the proposal: “We believe breaking this poverty cycle is very important.”

Wait, there’s more.

Last week, it was disclosed the Trump administration is considering giving states permission to require food stamp recipients to undergo drug testing to maintain their eligibility for what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP for short.

The proposal could be announced any day now by Trump. It would apply to able-bodied people without dependents.

Federal law now prevents the states from imposing their own eligibility requirements for food stamps. But Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Trump administration will give states greater control over eligibility.

“As a former governor, I know first-hand how important it is for states to be given flexibility to achieve the desired goal of self-sufficiency for people,” he told reporters. “We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence.”

The work requirement and drug testing would not apply to other forms of government aid, however. While Conaway and Perdue want to transition the poor off food stamps, there is no similar desire to transition recipients off other forms of government aid — such as economic development assistance for business owners or taxpayer-subsidized crop and income insurance sold at a steep discount to farmers.

The proposed requirements for food stamp recipients come from flawed beliefs on which some officials view poor people.

Too many of them believe food stamps are simply a way for poor people to rip off the government. Too many officials think poor people are not really trying to find jobs. And too many officials believe there is a connection between drug use and poor people.

Reality often is different from perception, however, and that is true with poverty.

Yes, there may be people scamming the system. The government should prosecute them. There may be poor people breaking drug laws. I’m pretty sure they are being prosecuted already.

We don’t require every driver to buy high-risk liability insurance just because a relative few motorists drive while intoxicated. Some taxpayers lie and cheat on their income taxes, but we don’t hold up everyone’s refunds while the feds audit every return.

In the view of some politicians, food stamps recipients need to be treated differently.

The government already screens all applicants and bases eligibility decisions, and the size of any benefits, on the applicants’ income, family size, and assets (primarily their bank balances).

Federal figures show that in 2017, 53% of food stamp recipients in Iowa were families where the breadwinners had jobs. They are what we call the “working poor.”

Many held more than one job in their efforts to make ends meet. But the pay from those jobs was so low they could not claw their way out of poverty.

The percentage of Iowans who are classified as the working poor is larger than the picture nationally, where 44% had jobs in 2017 but did not make enough to leave poverty.

In Iowa, 71% of food stamp recipients are in families with children. And 29% of food stamp recipients in Iowa last year were elderly or disabled.

Overall, 82% of Iowa recipients last year were the working poor, the elderly and the disabled.

It’s important to remember that existing restrictions on food stamps keep certain categories of people from receiving assistance regardless of their income or assets. Those restrictions block benefits for people on strike, for all unauthorized immigrants, and for certain immigrants who are lawfully in the United States.

And unemployed, childless adults who do not have disabilities are limited to three months of food stamps during a three-year period.

Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project, an Iowa City research group, testified about food stamps at a congressional hearing in 2013. What he said is true today, too.

“No one is getting rich — or full — living on SNAP when it provides less than $1.30 per person per meal,” he said. “Common sense tells us that the incentive is to get a job that pays better than one that qualifies you for SNAP and to be able to feed your family — if you can find that job.”