Michaud: The myth of takers vs. makers

A woman and her daughter counts out Electronic

A woman and her daughter counts out Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) coupons, more commonly known as Food Stamps, while shopping for groceries in the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square. (Sept. 18, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

Anne Michaud

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She

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An acquaintance of mine often rants about people who do no work and live on government handouts -- while she has to work for everything she has. She runs a cash business, and I suspect her belief that the government supports lazy oafs is how she justifies hiding her earnings from the tax man.

Once, tired of her rants, I asked, "Have you met any of these people who live off the government? I haven't met anyone like that."

She mumbled something I couldn't make out.

My friend couldn't produce any examples because this vast population of "takers" is a myth. Yet this myth has hardened like a knot in the gut. Many of us feel we've lost ground financially since the 2007 economic collapse, and some find refuge in this politics of resentment.

The resentment often attaches itself to President Barack Obama, who has presided over these tough times. I hear it from doctors and others in health care who feel that Obamacare will squeeze their earnings. Another acquaintance told me that, as whites, my daughters will grow up second-class citizens in the majority-minority Obama world. Watch his immigration policies closely, this person says with a conspiratorial gleam.

When I counter with facts about Obama's record of deporting people here illegally and white Americans having fewer children, this acquaintance doesn't want to hear it. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt so exhaustively argued in "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion," we humans intuit our opinions first -- in our guts -- and find reasons and arguments to buttress them later.

So it seems with the House Republicans and food stamps. The House voted last week to cut spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $40 billion over 10 years, or 5 percent. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) relied on a biblical passage from 2 Thessalonians to defend his vote: "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

That's pretty harsh, given that households with children, elderly or disabled people receive 83 percent of food stamp benefits.

Would we prefer these people to be out on the streets begging, as in so many other countries that don't have a social safety net? Hey, mademoiselle, carry your bag?

House Republicans like to say that the food stamp cost to taxpayers has more than doubled in four years, from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion last year. When he was running for president in 2012, Newt Gingrich called Obama the "food stamp president."

Those numbers are high, but they disguise other important truths. First, the food stamp program was structured so that everyone who qualifies can receive aid. Its growth has everything to do with the millions of jobs that were lost in the recession.

Second, many food stamp recipients do work. Unemployment is still high, and many people have taken part-time jobs or lower salaries. If they earn up to 30 percent more than the federal poverty level of about $30,000 a year for a family of four, they can combine their wages with the program benefits to put food on the table every day.

Finally, food stamp spending should eventually shrink on its own. As the economy improves, the Congressional Budget Office predicts, the number receiving benefits in the next decade will drop by almost 28 percent.

Is it really humane to grab food from people's mouths now? My gut tells me it's not.

Of course, the politics of resentment will whisper fables that lazy, cheating food stamp recipients are duping us. We may never know for sure, but I'm inclined to risk a little duping if it means that children, old people, the disabled and the working poor have a meal.