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Opinion: How offering restaurants through SNAP fails us all

Last week, a majority of the Missouri Senate (18 to 15) passed SB 798 to expand benefits of the food stamp program, SNAP. The bill, if passed by the House and signed into law by Governor Parson, would allow elderly, disabled, and homeless individuals to use their SNAP cards in participating restaurants.

People may like that additional benefit but many, like Bobby, don’t need it.

Bobby’s small frame and upbeat energy doesn’t quickly reveal his history on the streets. He’s been chronically homeless and a struggling addict for more than 20 years. He finally got free. For the first time in his adult life, he has gainful employment and to top it off, he voluntarily gave up his food stamp card just last month. He handed it to me, gladly exclaiming, “I don’t need it anymore.” I asked why. “I’m working and staying at the mission. Plus, it’s easy to sell them to support a habit.”

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We have here a human as well as an economic problem.” Speaking about welfare in the midst of great deflation, FDR said in his 1935 State of the Union address, “The lessons of history … show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Today, legislators are debating welfare in the midst of great inflation. More than the differences in economic environments, the talk is different today, too.

Whereas FDR may have considered a bill like SB 798 just another dose of a destructive narcotic, minority senate leader, John Rizzo, said, “It’s going to give more people options for healthy food and be a part of society and go into a restaurant.”

Even if one applauds the government’s support of more than 42 million Americans currently dependent on the USDA’s food stamp program, its foolishness to contend that expanding the program to include restaurant access will improve health.

Arizona joined five other states and passed a similar law at the end of last year. Burger King, Dairy Queen, KFC, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s are a few restaurants on a long list that now accept EBT payments. According to the NIH, though, fast food is the cause, not the solution, of early stroke and other risks for people in poverty.

Regarding “being a part of society,” Senator Rizzo’s heart seems to be in the right place. The building of social capital (relationships with others not in your immediate circle) is vital for a person to beat poverty. More than two decades of work in helping people escape homelessness and poverty has convinced me that there is nothing more important than building real relationships that bridge socioeconomic divides. But the thought that bolstering benefits on a food stamp card will accomplish that is laughable. In fact, just the opposite will occur if Missouri passes this bill into law.

Rather than visit churches, soup kitchens or missions like mine for a hot meal where volunteers will reach out with compassion and a listening ear, many of the homeless will hit the local Wendy’s instead. And who needs locally driven programs that connect willing people to help the elderly with meals, when the state steps in to feed you?

Legislating compassion always crowds out the source from which charity is delivered most effectively: private citizens. Democrat President Grover Cleveland got it right:

“Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”

Bobby has given up any “expectation of paternal care on the part of the government” and he loves it. “It feels great!” he said. “I’m integrating back into society. I’m a human being. People used to call me an animal. They don’t look at me like that anymore. My people I work with love me and I love them. I’m doing something. I’m not just sitting still and dying.”

We have a choice. We can support policy that reinforces the “sturdiness of our national character” and “strengthens the bonds of common brotherhood,” or we can support an expansion of a state program that will continue to widen the relational and economic gap between those who have and those who don’t.

More reliance on the state’s food program will not only fail to improve physical health, but it will increase government dependency while crowding out more of what compassionate community members can deliver—real relationships required to help those struggling in poverty lead a flourishing life. Like FDR said, it’s more than an economic problem. It’s a human one, too.