Food stamps and America's cultural divide over shame

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It is a cliché to say America is polarized, but that doesn’t make it any less true. While there is no shortage of examples, the cultural divide over shame may be the most revealing.

Those aiming to take the shame out of accepting government handouts are represented by The New York Times editorial page.

On Friday, it praised Gov. Cuomo’s decision to prevent New York City from fingerprinting food-stamp recipients with its usual farrago of ideological assertions masquerading as facts and a demand that he do even more to open the entitlement floodgates.

Channeling the philosophy of Mitchell “Come And Get It” Ginsberg, a 1960s welfare commissioner in Fun City, the Times turns shame upside down. It believes there is something wrong with any eligible American who doesn’t grab all he can. It also argues that saying no to Uncle Sam’s handouts is a dereliction of the duty to turn other people’s money into a permanent stimulus.

Citing Cuomo’s claim that there are 1.4 million eligible New Yorkers not taking food stamps, the paper says, “That leaves more than $1 billion in federal dollars unclaimed for people who would spend that money in the state.”

Notwithstanding the rise of obesity, the Times sees an epidemic of hunger. A stroll on any street suggests that hunger is hiding under layers of fat.

On the other side of the fault line, those who believe old-fashioned shame still plays an important role in fostering individual responsibility often find support on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages. So it was Friday with author Warren Kozak’s column headlined “Food Stamps and the $41 Cake.”

In a coincidental rebuttal to the Times, Kozak described standing behind a woman in an expensive store who used food stamps to pay $41 for an ice cream cake. “I quickly calculated that the woman’s cake was eight times more expensive than the kind I make at home to celebrate birthdays,” Kozak wrote.

There is no dispute that America should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. The argument is about whether the handouts are too freely dispensed and what impact they have on society and individuals.

Some 46 million people now get food stamps, or 15 percent of the US population, up 5 percent in the last year. Arizona is the only state that requires finger imaging.

The numbers in New York City are even more dramatic — 1.8 million people on the rolls, about 22 percent, even as the city alone in New York requires finger imaging.

City food-stamp recipients have increased by 600,000 in four years. Part of the spike stems from the recession, but also from an Obama administration decision to waive asset limits. You can be a millionaire and get food stamps if your actual income is below the limits, which go up to $45,000 for a family of four with child-care expenses. The average monthly food-stamp benefit for four is $624.

The growth of the rolls earned the city a “Hunger Champion” award from the White House. Yet Cuomo ordered the end of finger imaging because it is a “stigma” and a “barrier” to others who might be deterred by the anti-fraud measure.

It is a measure, by the way, required of government employees and, increasingly, of workers for private companies, too. Somehow, job seekers overcome the stigma.

Mayor Bloomberg, noting the acceptance rate among eligible people is higher in the city than elsewhere in the state, says finger imaging “certainly hasn’t pushed people away.”

He added that “establishing who you are” is not demeaning, and said the program saves federal taxpayers $5 million a year; he predicts abuses will grow when the program ends.

Under Cuomo’s plan, that will happen in July. Already, he is being pushed to go the next step and remove finger imaging for welfare recipients, a program started by his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, a liberal lion of his era. If nothing else, the demand shows the left’s gains in the war against shame.

Warren Kozak identifies the damage of those gains. He asks in his Journal essay how America went from being the world’s greatest engine of upward mobility to being trillions of dollars in debt.

He answers his own question: “One $41 cake at a time.”

To continue reading Michael Goodwin's column in the New York Post on other topics, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright, click here