Oh, SNAP.

33921116_sA couple of nights ago, I posted a link to an article on my Facebook feed about the SNAP (or “food stamps”) program.  The NY Times article, “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda” (written by Anahad O’Connor), suggested – and was reinforced by the headline and photo used – that families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend their benefits on junk food and soda.

I had linked to another Facebook post by a gentleman named Joe Soss.  Mr. Soss provided a rebuttal of that NY Times article, suggesting that the original study was misused in the article.  Since then, Talk Poverty has also picked up the story and expands on Mr. Soss’ original post.  While the article seems to question whether families receiving SNAP should be able to purchase “junk food” with their benefits, the underlying USDA survey actually found very few differences from the spending habits families on SNAP and those who are not.

Passion and Productivity sometimes don’t mix

My post sparked the passion of several of my friends, and I have a huge amount of respect for the amazing women who shared their feelings.  They came into the conversation about SNAP benefits from very different backgrounds, and those experiences created the strong feelings that they have on the topic.  Unfortunately, sometimes that passion can cloud our ability to address each other with empathy and respect, and it was the first time that I felt compelled to delete a Facebook post.  

Having deleted the post, though, I still wanted to present their viewpoints (to the best of my ability) and provide my thoughts.  There were two big issues that became contentious:

  1. How much fraud happens within the SNAP benefits program – and how much does it matter?
  2. Should those who receive SNAP benefits be restricted in what they are allowed to purchase, limiting junk food and other non-essential food items?

Food Stamp Fraud?

There was a heated discussion about the prevalence of SNAP benefit fraud in the Facebook thread.  One individual has witnessed individuals who have sold their benefits (or food purchased with their benefits) for cash, and suspects that those individuals have used the money to support a drug habit.  For this reason, it is extremely hard for her to feel positively about the program, particularly as an unemployed mom who struggles to make ends meet for her own family and does not qualify for the benefits.

It’s really hard to argue with that experience.  The official statistics on food stamp fraud show that there is a 1.3% rate of “trafficking” in SNAP benefits, according to a 2013 USDA report.  (These appear to be the most current numbers.)  What is critical to understand is the definition of this fraud:  “Trafficking” is defined as users who trade their SNAP benefits to food retailers for cash, typically at a discount.  Individuals who may purchase and then sell the food for cash would not fall under this type of fraud, and these incidents are likely not captured in the total fraud statistics.

If there is unmeasured fraud within the system, is it enough to warrant major changes to the SNAP program?  It’s really difficult to tell taxpayers struggling to make ends meet that even though they see abuses, this program is far more valuable than it is wasteful.  However…

There will always be some individuals who seek to abuse the system; creating a 100% fraud-proof system is impossible, and we’ll spend far more taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate fraud than the cost of the fraud itself.  The SNAP program is one of the most efficient federal programs in terms of administrative overhead (~7% of total budget, with 93% going directly to beneficiaries) and in error rates in distribution.  And the benefit that it offers to our entire society by reducing extreme poverty and providing a safety net for families and individuals to get back onto their feet during difficult times is significant.

Limit the Grocery Items Available?

38611885 - detail of a person shopping in a supermarketThe second issue, and possibly the more contentious one, was an issue of whether or not SNAP recipients should be more restricted in the grocery items that they may purchase.  Should someone on SNAP be able to purchase junk food and soda?  What about steak and lobster?  How about exotic and expensive fruits and vegetables?  Organic items that are more costly?

There are rules established on SNAP benefits that  limit what can be purchased to food items, excluding things like prepared foods.  However, beyond that, the individual beneficiary makes the decisions about what foods to purchase.  Here is where things get complicated.

  • Are there some choices that would appear better than others?  Of course.  I will admit to having judgement if I see someone buying expensive food items using their SNAP benefits.
  • Can such a purchase be justified for special occasions, or if the individual has truly saved up for something?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  
  • Should I be allowed to have an opinion because I’m a taxpayer?  I understand why the answer feels like it should be yes, but no.  We all deserve the dignity of personal decision making, and even if you are receiving government assistance, you are an individual with the ability to make decisions for yourself.  

Setting limits becomes a slippery slope.  If we don’t allow the purchase of lobster, should we also take away expensive fresh vegetables?  If we start limiting items based on cost, then junk food is more attractive, because it’s cheap.  If we also limit food that does not provide high nutritional value (and that has been proposed in Tennessee), we start to narrow down the choices exponentially.   We end up with a program that provides almost no value, and has higher overhead costs to manage the regulations.

Accountability?  Of course.

Should the SNAP program – and all government benefit programs – be continuously monitored and held accountable for results?  YES.  So many people are opposed to “big government” because of the waste and inefficiencies in the programs, and they are not wrong.  Many government programs are poorly managed, with little oversight and no accountability.  We need to stand up as voters and demand that oversight – and insist that we fund programs that work – and change or remove programs that don’t.  We also have to admit that no program is without issues – cracks that folks can fall through, and loopholes that others can sneak through.  We do the best to patch those holes and keep moving forward.

SNAP works in a highly effective and efficient manner.  This is one of the good ones, and we really need to work to protect it.

A note on fostering the conversation

PLEASE keep talking to each other and sharing your point of view.  If something makes you angry, help the rest of us to understand why.  I know you don’t all agree with me – and I hope you will tell me why and help me to learn.  Comment, ask questions, provide links, or suggest further research!

The Electoral College is Not the Problem

voteI have a controversial and unpopular opinion to share: I think the Electoral College is a valuable institution and should remain in place as a part of our republican government.

Democracy versus Republic

Most of us have probably been taught at some point that the United States is a republic and not actually a democracy, but it’s hard to keep that fact straight when we (myself included) use the word “democracy” with such reverence.

Democracy: A true democracy is ruled by popular vote. Everything is ruled by popular vote.

Republic: Representatives are elected by popular vote, and they go on to create laws and structure under which the masses agree to live.

A democracy is impractical for any organization with more than a few members, because it’s not reasonable to expect a popular vote to be taken on every decision that impacts the members. And so we create a republican framework within which to operate.

(The party names of “Democratic” and “Republican” have little to do with the meaning of the words. The parties have, in fact, essentially switched their key principles since the mid-19th century.)

The Electoral College

Of course, we could still be a republic without the intervening system of the Electoral College. Popular vote could elect a President, who is then the representative of the people. Instead, we vote for electors, who then go on to vote for the President. How the electors vote for the President is a matter that is up to the individual states within the union of the United States.

So why have the Electoral College?

The founders recognized that a popular vote for the Executive Branch of government posed a challenge. The areas of the country with the highest number of voters would control the office of the President. Voters, being white, landholding men, were not evenly dispersed – and the President would consistently not represent the disparate interests of the entire United States.

Yes, it is true that for many of the founders, this meant that slave holding states with fewer eligible voters would not be represented by the Executive Branch. And while that background is abhorrent, the concept continues to have value in our country today.

The Electoral College forces a candidate to listen to the entire country

43018293_sThe Electoral College concept forces a candidate to listen to the needs of the entire country. While gaining vast majorities of the popular vote in highly populated areas could win the popular vote, a candidate has to win the popular vote in more than just a few places within the larger country. A candidate can’t focus on the needs of coastal cities, for example, without considering the needs of the agricultural and industrial Midwest.

There are a lot of reasons to deny the legitimacy of a Trump presidency. The Electoral College should not be one of them.

Mrs. Clinton lost the election, because she failed to win the trust and address the concerns of voters across the country. That is not the fault of the Electoral College system, but rather illustrates why it exists.  She needed to better understand and address concerns in the rural and industrial areas.

The challenge, in this particular election year, is that Donald Trump did not win fairly. While he won the election, he did so by lying to the public, refusing to provide critical information, and through the interference of a foreign government. And his insistence that he won “by a landslide” is such a ridiculous notion that it makes it hard to argue in favor of his Electoral College victory.

The Electoral College is granted the power—at least in some states—to vote their conscience and refuse to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in their state. Should they have done so in this election? That’s a matter of opinion at this point, because the investigations into the foreign influence, financial conflicts of interest and other issues were not completed when the vote was held. It could also be argued that voting against the popular vote in those states won by Donald Trump would have caused violence and conflict that might be more destructive than a Trump presidency.

There are a lot of reasons to deny the legitimacy of a Trump presidency. The Electoral College should not be one of them.

 

Respect and the Office of the Presidency

10331725 - president clintonIn the movie The American President, Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen) refuses to call President Shepherd (Michael Douglas) by any name other than “Sir” or “Mr. President”, despite having been friends for years.  As long as President Shepherd is in office, he will be addressed as “Mr. President” and never “Andy”, because the office of the Presidency deserves that respect.

That idea of Presidential respect has stuck with me for more than 20 years.  The office of the US President deserves a level of reverence that goes above and beyond the man behind the office.  I am careful to always use appropriate titles and to bestow respect that is due, regardless of my personal feelings and political leanings, to the man holding the Office of the President.

After a great deal of consideration and internal turmoil, however, I have come to the decision that I will not be able to address Donald Trump with the title of President.  

There are certainly a lot of reasons why you might question the validity of a Trump Presidency, from foreign interference in the elections to the confusing role of the Electoral College versus the popular vote.  My decision, however, comes down to a very simple reality: Donald Trump does not deserve the respect due to any previous President of the United States, because he has repeatedly proven that he does not respect the Presidency or the people of the United States,  and he refuses to treat the role with the level of seriousness that it requires.

Recently, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and the leader of Inequality Media, addressed the topic in a Facebook post.  Mr. Reich was responding to a politician (whom he had chosen not to name) who told Reich that he would be attending Trump’s inauguration and festivities, because he believed “in promoting unity over partisanship and supporting a peaceful transition of power”.   Mr. Reich responded,

…It’s not matter of Democrat versus Republican, or left versus right.

The issue here is how former presidents and other politicians should respond to someone who has shown himself to be a dangerous demagogue.

Donald Trump became president by lying, demeaning women, denigrating racial and ethnic minorities, denying intelligence reports of foreign intervention in our election, excusing violence against opponents, and undermining the freedom and independence of the press. And since being elected he’s held rallies and issued tweets in which he’s continued to tell big lies, retaliate against critics, call opponents “enemies,” avoid press conferences, and dismiss conflicts of financial interest.

I told him that, in my view, attending Trump’s inauguration gives tacit support and approval to someone who poses a clear and present danger to our democracy.

The word “resistance” feels scary and reactionary, but it does not feel wrong.  My resistance starts with my language.  #notmypresident

 

Let’s talk about Melania

I cannot condemn anyone for personal attacks on President-Elect Trump’s appearance, speech-patterns, tiny hands or orange face.  Honestly, maybe I should, because what is wrong with Mr. Trump has nothing to do with the color of his skin or the size of his appendages.  But given that he’s made the appearance, disability, speech and size of others the subject of ridicule, I say, “Have at him.”

melaniaThe attacks on Melania Trump, however, are different.  Slut-shaming, mocking her accent or criticizing her appearance are just not okay.  Doing it makes us no better than her husband.  In fact, I think about the criticism that she likely faces from her own husband, and I wish someone would tell her that she has value that goes beyond her appearance.

With that said, we can (and should) criticize Mrs. Trump for her actions, when it is warranted.  Plagiarizing a speech, defending her husband’s participation in the rape culture with his language (if not his deeds), and not recognizing the hypocrisy in a platform of anti-bullying as a First Lady — her actions within this political space are open to critical review.

Melania Trump is unlikely to live up to expectations as a First Lady after Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, or Rosalynn Carter.  (Yeah, I skipped one.)  If she chooses to be a less visible, less active First Lady, that’s her right.  There are no Constitutional requirements for the spouse of the American President.  If she does choose to be visible, we have a right and an obligation to evaluate her deeds, her actions and her words.  Everything else is off the table.

LBJ, Eggs and the Power of the Presidency

This post is not about President-Elect Donald Trump. At least, not directly. This is a post that has been in my brain for months now, and it may be more relevant now than ever.

LBJ was an interesting President. His push for the Great Society left us with a significant number of the federal programs and regulation that we still have today—and those programs are still often hotly debated. He was a “big government” politician, and he was successful in executing on his vision. That much of his legacy is tied to the Vietnam War is warranted, but clouds some of this other accomplishments. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

47344195_sIn 1966, President Johnson decided that the price of eggs was too high. He was actively manipulating the economy by directly appealing to industry leaders to control things like the supply of goods or the prices of goods. But in the spring of 1966, he decided that the price of eggs was too high. (I can’t remember why he cared specifically about the price of eggs. I’d look it up, but I don’t think it matters.) His advisors and the Department of Agriculture told him that there really wasn’t anything that they could do. Americans loved their eggs.

So President Johnson got creative.

There had been a recent study that would have otherwise been published in medical journals and mostly forgotten about, but Johnson encouraged the Surgeon General to release the results in a different way. That study found that eggs are high in cholesterol, and that high cholesterol is not healthy.

Media outlets played their role perfectly, if unknowingly, and spread the story far and wide. Eggs were bad for you! Eggs are unhealthy! The demand for eggs dropped immediately and substantially, and the price of eggs dropped with it.

The takeaways from this story are this:

  • The President of the United States has influence and power, and sometimes chooses to use it in really weird ways.
  • The media manipulates us and is itself manipulated.
  • Sometimes it is not enough to look critically at information and think, “Is this true?” Sometimes you also have to think, “Does this matter?”
  • Words and actions have long-term consequences.

Every time I think about eggs or cholesterol, I can’t help but think about politics and LBJ. And now I hope this story haunts you the way it haunts me. You’re welcome. 😉

What now?

52448907_sThe reality of a President-Elect Donald Trump has not yet fully sunk in.  At the same time, I seem to be consumed with the thought of nothing else.  I am grateful and humbled for those of you who have given me your trust and a platform to express those thoughts.

It might sound like a cliche by now–the election of Donald Trump is a wake-up call.  This campaign should have been a wake-up call, but many just did not believe that his message resonated as strongly as it did.  Coming from a county that ultimately had 71% of voters casting their vote for Trump, I can tell you that the support is strong.

What I and many others are struggling with is why voters chose Trump.  Many on the left will say that it is a vote for racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.  For some Trump supporters, I have no doubt that this was the reason that they voted for him.  But for many others–and I’m personally counting on it being most of his supporters–it was something else.  

I’m hearing the voices of my Liberal friends who are thinking, “Maybe that’s not why they voted for him, but his sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia is going to have a huge impact on his administration and presidency, and ultimately our lives.”  I agree.  And it scares me.  But as crazy as this sounds, that’s not what I want to focus on right now.  If that is your focus and the advocacy route that you are taking, I support you.

I have deliberately been focusing on staying positive–not positive in the sense that there aren’t serious, potentially catastrophic, concerns about a Trump presidency, but positive in that I am focusing on the things that I can do and on the best ways that I know to impact change.   For now, my focus is on these things:

  • What are the factors that have led us to this place?  What is it that makes Trump’s message so compelling and why have Democrats failed to engage many of the very people that they (we) purport to fight for?
  • What do supporters of President-Elect Trump really believe on critical social issues, like LGBTQ rights, civil rights, police brutality and the need for improved training, gun control, healthcare and welfare?  How can Democrats (or me, personally) engage with those moderate, reasoned Trump supporters to advocate for these critical social issues that lift up all Americans?
  • How can we (I) encourage reasoned conversation that comes from a place of kindness and friendship, and minimize the hate and anger that is lying under the national conversation right now?
  • How we we (I) encourage every individual to get involved at all levels of government and engage with their local, state and national representatives?  How do we ALL go back to a system of government that allowed elected officials to represent their entire constituency and make decisions that they felt morally good about, rather than a two-party system that doesn’t allow for deviations from the party line?

I’m honored that so many of you have trusted me and given me a platform to try to make sense of some of this for all of us, and I’m going to do my best to live up to that trust.

Original Intent, the Second Amendment and my nerdy love for James Madison

James Madison Memorial, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

James Madison Memorial, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

James Madison, father of the United States Constitution and co-author of the Federalist Papers, once said in a letter to Judge Roane (Virginia judge and member of the Virginia House of Delegates),

It could not but happen, and was foreseen at the birth of the Constitution, that difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally arise in expounding terms and phrases necessarily used in such a charter . . . and that it might require a regular course of practice to liquidate and settle the meaning of some of them.

Or to put it in current, less founding father-y language: The US Constitution is necessarily vague and will need to be continuously interpreted throughout history.

Madison knew from the outset that anything that was written in the Constitution would have to be interpreted through the lens of the current period in history.  While I know better than to speak for the “founding fathers” as though they were of one unified opinion, in this they were mostly in agreement.  The Constitution would need to be a living document.

Of course, that idea is still the source of much debate.  (Interestingly similar to the debate about how literally we should take the Bible, really.)  But let’s assume for a moment that we SHOULD interpret the Constitution using original intent.  (We shouldn’t.  But let’s do it anyway.)

What was the original intent of the Second Amendment?

The text of the ratified version of the Second Amendment states,

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Most people understand this to mean that citizens should be permitted to arm themselves for their own protection.  We often think about the needs at the time of the ratification of the Constitution – protection against Native American attacks, protection against wildlife, the need to hunt for game, etc.  Many people understand, correctly, that this was also an intent to allow the citizens to protect themselves against tyranny, based on the phrase “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…”

What is misunderstood, however, is that the original intent of the Second Amendment was to appease the groups of Americans who opposed any sort of “standing” army.  A very large contingent of Americans believed that the United States should have no permanent, regular army or armed force.  They believed that protection of the new nation should be in the hands only of state-based, primarily volunteer, militia.  To many, an army that was funded by the central government was the very core of tyranny.

Madison wasn’t totally on board with that.  He knew that a central military that was funded by federal tax revenues would be necessary for viable protection of the country against foreign enemies, but like most US citizens until WWI, foresaw a very small, centralized force supported by volunteer corps when needed.  But to appease those who feared the central military, he included in the drafted Bill of Rights the specific rights for militia to continue to exist.

If you are going to go with original intent, you have to know what the original intent actually was.

I often hear arguments against any revision of gun control policy that point to the “original intent” of the Second Amendment, citing a citizen’s right bear arms in protection against tyranny.  Maybe that was true, but the original intent of the Second Amendment has been invalidated, unless you also prefer to also abolish or drastically minimize the US military.  Of course you don’t.  That’s insane.  Few US citizens today would argue for a smaller military.

I’m not in favor of abolishing the Second Amendment.  I think it has value and I think citizens do have a right to bear arms for protection.  (Yes, even “protection against tyranny”.)  I also believe, as James Madison did, that the US Constitution is necessarily a living document, requiring re-interpretation as the world evolves and changes.

 The world has certainly evolved and changed, and it is time for re-interpretation.