On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

February 27, 2012

Some years ago, I was fired from a job I’d had for a long time. I was told my position had been restructured out of existence. But it sure felt like firing to me.

This was during a recession. And as time went on — and hopes dwindled — I got to thinking about what would happen if I never found work again.

I realized that I couldn’t rely on any of the major public benefits programs because I was a relatively young, able-bodied adult with no children.

If I’d sunk into poverty earlier, I could have gotten food stamps — though hardly at a level that would have enabled me to eat three squares a day.

But Congress had decided that people like me had to earn their food stamps by demonstrating personal responsibility — this as part of the same law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As with the TANF, “personal responsibility” means, among other things, working or preparing for work.

So under ordinary circumstances, most of us able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period unless we’re working at least 20 hours a week or engaged, for the same amount of time, in a job training or workfare program, i.e., unpaid public service.

The Recovery Act suspended this time limit through September 2010. President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget would have reinstated the suspension.

But the proposal went nowhere. Hardly surprising when House Republicans had decided that the food stamp program was growing out of all compass and should be converted to a block grant like TANF.

For the most part, however, ABAWDs have been okay because the law allows states to get a waiver from the time limit for those who live in areas where the unemployment rate is over 10% or there are “insufficient jobs.”

I’ve tried to figure out whether this long-standing policy will provide a reasonable substitute for a reinstatement of the Recovery Act suspension. Very difficult because most of the available data are for states as a whole, not areas within states.

This much seems clear. Very few, if any agencies will be able to claim a statewide waiver in Fiscal Year 2013.

As of December, unemployment rates were higher than 10% in only four states and the District of Columbia. Seems likely that fewer states will qualify on this basis when the new fiscal year begins.

Which leaves the “insufficient jobs” option. Memos from the federal Food Nutrition Service indicate that it’s been using the trigger criteria for the Extended Benefits portion of unemployment insurance to decide whether states qualify for a year-long statewide waiver.

As I wrote awhile ago, states “trigger off” EB when their average unemployment rate for the current three-month period is no longer at least 6.5% higher than during the comparable period in a recent prior year.

So more states will fall off the trigger list as time goes on, even though their unemployment rates are well above normal.

This doesn’t mean states won’t be able to claim waivers. But it seems they’ll have to revert to the much more restrictive Department of Labor “surplus area” lists — generally local jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20% higher than the national rate.

Perhaps in ordinary times it makes sense to say that able-bodied adults who need food stamp benefits should work or prepare for work if they can. Whether they should be coerced into working for no pay is a separate issue.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

There are still nearly four times as many people looking for work as jobs available.

Job re-training programs are reportedly stressed to the max. And it seems reasonable to suppose that a fair number of the longer-term jobless ABAWDs have already completed one anyway. Doubtful they could get into another that would carry them through till they found work.

So the end of the current ABAWD waivers will almost surely mean that more low-income people go hungry. Seems unfair to punish them because jobs are scarce and they’ve no one but themselves to support.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget again proposes a time-limit suspension. I’d like to think it will pass this time, but that’s more hope for change than I can muster.