The comments below this article are an example of the sort of thing I'm talking about--but then again, I can't claim to be really untroubled by the article, either:
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Once a month, just after midnight, the beeping checkout scanners at a Walmart just off Interstate 95 come alive in a chorus of financial desperation.
Here and at grocery stores across the country, the chimes come just after food stamps and other monthly government benefits drop into the accounts of shoppers who have been rationing things like milk, ground beef and toilet paper and can finally stock up again.
Shoppers mill around the store after 11 p.m., killing time until their accounts are replenished. When midnight strikes, they rush for the checkout counter. [...]
One in seven Americans lives in poverty, and more than 41 million are on food stamps, a record. Last year the figure was about 35 million. [...]
Not counting Social Security, one in six Americans now receives some form of government assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and extended unemployment benefits.
These government payouts now account for about 20 percent of Americans' total after-tax income, said David Rosenberg, an economist at investment firm Gluskin Sheff. The average over the past half-century is 13 percent.
The high number of people on government assistance is atypical for this stage of an economic recovery. Usually at this point, growth in assistance rolls should be flattening, Rosenberg said.
And if we do count Social Security? The mind boggles. Or, well, it doesn't, really; what person out there doesn't look at the five or ten or twenty or thirty or forty thousand or more difference between his income on paper and his actual take-home pay, and not realize that we're reaching a crisis point in our ability to pay into a system that is paying out more than it will ever receive?
Most of the families detailed in the article were simply moms, dads, and children, trying to scrape by on a too-small income in a time of economic downturn. Some of the commenters suggested that not having any children, or at the very least having only one or two, was the answer--and some said this very rudely, in a way that would have made Margaret Sanger and her fellow eugenicists very proud. But as other commenters pointed out, who knows if Dad was working at a better job, and maybe Mom was working too, before this little recession which everybody but the middle and lower-middle class now seems to think is over?
In other words, there's nothing wrong with a nation as great as America making it a priority to have strong, flexible safety nets for families in crisis. If we can afford to prosecute wars in foreign lands where our national security interests are unclear at best, we can afford to feed American children should their parents be disparately affected by our refusal to protect American jobs and American industries.
At the same time, though, I share the concerns of those who worry that too many of these programs are becoming a way of life, not a safety net, for too many Americans. When too many people consider Medicaid their permanent health care plan, for instance, all of health care has to be restructured so that there will be enough people paying into the system to cover those who don't. The problems with Social Security could get their own blog post, too. So--what if an ever-widening pool of more or less permanent food stamp recipients becomes part of our new economic reality? Will the government start to set food prices, as they did health care prices with Medicare? Will stores start charge "cash" customers more to offset what they loose to food stamp payments? Will we have, as we did with Medicare, two distinct groups of food consumers: those who pay for their food plus the food of others, and those who never pay at all?
I know that as a Catholic, my impulse here is to say: feed the hungry; the rest is details. But it isn't quite that simple. If we tax families to feed the hungry so that then the families have to go on the food program too, eventually we run out of people paying in to what started out as a safety net. There are some issues of justice and responsibility, here, too.
But on the other side of things, we know that we aren't paying anything like a living wage to those families at or near the poverty line. Some of that has been the economic impact of things far outside of those families' control, like outsourcing jobs so that American workers have to compete with third-world workers making a fraction of what American workers earn, or failing to come up with a workable border control solution that, while not throwing to the wolves everybody illegally enticed here by our own companies looking to save money, would stem the flow for the future, and other things of that nature.
The pro-life thing to do is to see to it that families in crisis have enough food, and never have to choose between the life of an unborn baby and the needs of those children already born--something that crisis pregnancy centers around the nation are superbly terrific at doing, though they can always use our help, prayers, and generous financial donations. But another pro-life thing to do may be to consider what long-term policies we need to enact to make sure that there is enough work for Americans, and that the government's emergency fund for groceries will stay just that: a temporary help to get a family through a crisis situation, not a permanent consolation prize for those whose jobs were lost in the "global economy" gamble.
UPDATE: Pat Buchanan writes on this topic.