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The misplaced stigma

Chris Fitzsimon

Here is a sobering statistic about the daily economic struggles faced by thousands of families in North Carolina. More than 1.2 million people in the state now receive food stamps. That is up 24 percent over a year ago.

And the real numbers are worse. The last study of food stamp participation found that only 63 percent of people in North Carolina eligible for food stamps were receiving them, ranking North Carolina 33rd in the nation in food stamp participation.

A recent New York Times story about food stamps tried to make the case that receiving food stamps no longer comes with a stigma and the program is now widely accepted as a way to help people make ends meet.

The story quotes Republican Sen. Richard Lugar who says that people now understand the country needs a strong food stamp program. But it also cites South Carolina Lt Gov. Andre Bauer’s quote about food stamps, that his grandmother “told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”

It’s a similar sentiment to that expressed during the welfare debate in North Carolina in the mid-1990s, when state Sen. Hugh Webster showed up at a news conference with bumper stickers that said, “Can’t feed ’em, Don’t Breed ’em.”

Webster has long since retired from the Senate, but his offensive sentiment remains in North Carolina, cloaked in only slightly less offensive language. A couple of years ago, local talk radio hosts were beside themselves about a state outreach effort to encourage people who were eligible for food stamps to apply for them.

A prominent Raleigh think-tanker was equally upset, and criticized the efforts to increase food stamp participation, saying that maybe some people who were eligible didn’t apply because they didn’t think they deserved to get them.
Not getting enough to eat is apparently appropriate punishment for depression or lack of self-worth or even bad luck. Why should the government encourage people to find ways to feed themselves or their families?

Another North Carolina anti-everything think-tanker recently derided farming interests for engaging in “protective lobbying” of the food stamp program because it benefits them financially, a statement that implicitly assumes that the food stamp program should not be protected.

The North Carolina bashers of the poor and the programs that help them have plenty of guidance from their pseudo-intellectual national counterparts. An economist with the Heritage Foundation calls the food stamp program “a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty.” Errors like trying to help people who lose their jobs survive until they can find another one.

Then there’s the loudest mouthpiece of the right, Rush Limbaugh, who said last year that the expansion of food stamp benefits by the Obama administration was part of its effort to expand the welfare state and to “take the nation’s wealth and return it to the nation’s rightful owners,” which Limbaugh said was all part of the plan for “forced reparations.”

Never underestimate the willingness of the right to try to use race to divide us, especially when millions of people of all colors are suffering.

The fact that almost two-thirds of the people in North Carolina who are eligible are getting help buying food is not something to criticize. It ought to be viewed as a step in the right direction that comes with a commitment to make sure the other 37 percent have every opportunity to sign up.

There’s no stigma in getting enough to eat. Everybody deserves that. The stigma ought to come with spouting rhetoric that makes it harder for people to feed their families.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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