Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Food Stamp Use + More Wall Street Bonuses = A Threatening Mixture of Ingredients

As you shop for groceries or eat your next meal, consider this:

  • About one in eight U.S. residents receives food stamps.
  • About six million people nationally have no other source of income except food stamps.
  • In Minnesota, the average monthly number of people receiving food stamps rose every year from 2002 to 2008. (When final numbers appear for 2009, I suspect we will see an increase as well.)
  • More than 40,000 Minnesotans may be living on no income other than food stamps, according to information reported by MinnPost from the Department of Human Services.
  • In Minnesota, about one in 12 people lives below the poverty line; in the U.S. as a whole, it’s about one in 8.

People with no income other than food stamps comprise the extreme tip of a larger iceberg created by the current economy. As profiled in the January 3 Sunday New York Times, many of them dropped suddenly into this situation from middle class lifestyles, as a result of losing jobs that had paid decent wages. In the current difficult economic environment, everyone knows someone out of work.

A public official opined something to the effect that providing food stamps and similar benefits indefinitely might foster reliance on the government welfare system. While I’m always open to new findings which will shape my opinions, I have to say that, so far, no evidence has come to my attention to indicate that people who receive food stamps, who have no cash income, and who double up with relatives or live in a shelter develop a liking for that condition.

Our economic challenges will not disappear soon. The Department of Labor reports that the downward trend in jobs continues; nationally, 85,000 disappeared in December. We have an unemployment rate at about 10%; and the underemployment rate, which includes people who gave up looking for work as well as people who took part time jobs to replace fulltime positions – could be 17% or more. No trends have yet emerged to indicate that the “stimulus” has had a major impact.

In the short term, concern and compassion for the less fortunate must motivate us to meet the immediate needs of those in our community. (Lack of effort or determination has not caused people to find themselves in bad economic circumstances. Many have led honest, hard-working lives, only to have their livelihoods destroyed by circumstances outside of their control, precipitated by people who were not so honest.) In the long term, we must collaborate with others around the nation and the world on issues such as economic development and the distribution of natural resources to needy nations – if we want to eliminate the underlying conditions that produce poor health, human suffering, and social deterioration, not to mention the breeding of terrorism.

National and local recovery from the current economic hardships will require all of us to contribute; it will require all of us to tighten our belts. Which leads me to other facts which have astounded the public recently.

As you examine your next paycheck, consider this:

  • Goldman Sachs is expected to pay its employees an average of about $595,000 apiece for 2009.
  • Workers in the investment bank of JP Morgan Chase will receive an average of about $463,000.

Corporate executives – some of them the same people responsible for causing the banking and housing industry problems which have devastated our economy – have now entered “bonus season”. Wall Street traders who created derivatives – they will receive big bonuses. Wall Street traders who bundled mortgages into “collateralized debt obligations”, sold them to investors, but then bet against them behind the scenes so the traders would profit when the investors lost – they will receive bonuses.

Again, I’m always open to new facts that will shape my opinions, but I have not seen any evidence that large salaries and bonuses for Wall Street executives, or huge rewards for dishonest traders, stimulate or nurture the democratic, capitalist system that we value.

Meanwhile the news amuses us with stories of NBC’s dispute with two talk show hosts, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, who together earn $50 million plus per year.

People living on nothing but food stamps, others making millions. How long do we think that our communities can survive unless we address the issue of poverty among some in the midst of such great abundance among others?

(To examine trend and background information related to these issues, see for example: Twin Cities Compass; New York Times; MinnPost. Food Support (Food Stamp) trends for Minnesota appear in the Quarterly Economic Pulse. )

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