Who is getting the free lunch exactly?

How many Americans have to starve before we develop some compassion?

How many Americans have to starve before we develop some compassion?

I spend Wednesday afternoons volunteering at the food pantry run by Caring Ministries. Each week I fill carts for about a dozen families with nutritious food that is a combination of staples provided by The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and donations from local churches and individuals. As I load another round of groceries into another trunk I reflect on the aphorism in our culture that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

What we mean by “no free lunch” is that everything has a cost somewhere to someone, and implied in this is that you should work hard and pay for your own lunch. It is an affirmation of the rugged individualism, the bootstrap mentality, we are so proud of in America – particularly here in the west. Unfortunately, the noble ideal of independence and diligence when allied with the status quo of profound economic inequality causes us to make the wrong assumptions. We tend to assume that anyone who can pay for their own lunch has earned that ability, and those who can’t pay for their own lunch are corrupt or lazy.

The caricature of those who receive SNAP (food stamps), or the families who I meet on Wednesdays at the food pantry is of lazy individuals taking advantage of the system. The facts simply do not bear this stereotype out. Four out of 5 recipients of SNAP are employed. Those who are not employed are usually disabled or seniors. In fact 76 percent of all households that receive SNAP include a child, a senior, or a disabled person and these households receive 83 percent of all benefits distributed. Over 90 percent of SNAP recipients are well below the poverty line. In other words, the people who are receiving this help genuinely need it and not because they are lazy. Those that can work, do work.

What’s more, these programs have incredibly low rates of fraud. You and I as tax-payers are not getting taken for a ride by food stamp recipients. SNAP had one of the lowest rates of fraud of any government program last year (under 3 percent) and most of that fraud was actually mistakes by caseworkers that resulted in recipients being underpaid, not overpaid. The rest of the fraud was by retailers taking advantage of SNAP recipients.

SNAP recipients do not receive more than they need. 90 percent of benefits are entirely used up by the third week of the month – I know, that is when I see them coming in greater numbers to the food pantry. If you’re not sure about this I encourage you to take the SNAP challenge: try feeding yourself for a week on less than $4.50 per day, which is roughly the amount you would receive in food stamps.

Something unfair is indeed going on when so many people are in need of support just so they can eat. Someone is receiving a free lunch in our society, but it isn’t the people coming to the food pantry. As wages continue to stagnate while profits continue to rise we will only see more and more people unable to buy groceries at the end of the month. Most of these people will work low wage jobs at employers like Walmart, where over 80 percent of workers receive SNAP benefits. For a long time now we have been subsidizing corporate greed by refusing to hold employers accountable for providing a living wage. The person who has been going to lunch on your dime is probably your boss.

Read the facts, not fiction, at feedingamerica.org

Rev. Aric Clark is the pastor of United Presbyterian Church of Fort Morgan. Read more of his writing on his blog at http://twofriarsandafool.com

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