On The Vitter No-Food-Stamps-For-Criminals Amendment

I’ve been preoccupied with other things the last couple of weeks, namely the @large conference which starts today (yes, yes, it’s a shameless plug for which I don’t apologize), and as such I didn’t jump into the controversy over Sen. David Vitter’s amendment to the Farm Bill which would deny food stamp benefits to convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. The amendment passed through unanimous consent, with Democrats fearing to be seen voting for felons.

After it passed, however, the Left went bananas. Here was Salon

In a sleepy moment on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Democrats accepted an amendment to the long-delayed farm bill that, if passed in its current form, would represent another step in turning previously incarcerated Americans into a permanent underclass. Certain classes of ex-convicts would be denied food stamp benefits for life, under the amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (cannily, the crime of soliciting prostitutes is exempted from this ban). While the amendment may sound like common sense, it’s actually a harshly punitive, counterproductive policy that will only increase crime and trap people in the criminal justice system.

And here was the Huffington Post

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut.

Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact.  Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.

The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesn’t matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice.

It’s also possible that the amendment could contribute to recidivism.  Ex-offenders often have difficulty finding jobs that pay decent wages.  The amendment could pose dilemmas for ex-offenders who are trying to go straight but can neither find jobs nor, as a result of the amendment, obtain enough food to feed their children and families.

Naturally, these are the kinds of arguments you can expect from lefties – as though federal benefits are a basic right and there isn’t a fundamental problem with the definition of rehabilitation when someone who requires free stuff from the government is a fully productive member of society.

My caveat to support of Vitter’s amendment might be that it would be stronger if it was prospective – that people who might commit violent felonies would be given notice that one of the consequences going forward would be ineligibility for federal benefits like food stamps. In other words, you know going in that you’re not going to get freebies from the feds anymore if you commit those crimes – so perhaps that should be a deterrent to committing them.

Otherwise, though, 50 million people on food stamps is entirely too many and it’s time to start limiting who can get them in an effort to drive that number down. People getting food stamps are not people succeeding in America, and issuing food stamps is an admission by the government that its economic policies are failures. Of course, the Left doesn’t have a problem with that – the Left merely cares about how many people they can put on the dole and thus how many people they can buy votes from.

This is why concocting sob stories like the 82-year old grandfather who got railroaded by a racist Southern jury for rape 50 years ago and served his time and feeds his grandkids on food stamp money is their response to Vitter’s amendment. Get out the violins – but don’t bother to mention that the 82-year old grandfather isn’t $17 trillion in debt like the federal government the Left wants to pay him through.

A far more substantial argument against Vitter’s amendment came from Tad Dehaven at Cato, who decries the one-size-fits-all nature of using the federal government in this way and uses it to indict the entire concept of federal government charity in the first place…

My initial reaction was “A few undesirables will lose a taxpayer-financed handout—so what?” But the more I thought about the amendment, the less I cared for it. For starters, the amendment appears to be politically motivated. Vote against it and a Senator can expect to see a negative campaign add from his or her next opponent. That’s probably why the amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent instead of being formally voted on in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

More importantly, what does it accomplish? In terms of budgetary savings, it probably won’t save taxpayers much money. In addition to doing little to curb the size of government, it does nothing to rein in the federal government’s scope. I believe that it is not a proper role of the federal government to fund and/or administer anti-poverty programs. At most, such concerns should be the domain of state and local governments. Ideally, poverty relief would be completely handled by charities and other private organizations. The Vitter amendment, however, is just another example of the Beltway’s one-size-fits-all mentality.

And the money shot…

The diversity of opinion points to a fundamental problem with the government trying to act like a charity: the country gets stuck with whatever the politicians conjure up. Contrary to what youngsters are led to believe in school, our elected officials are not altruistic, enlightened beings. In reality, federal efforts to alleviate poverty will always be undermined by the self-serving nature of politics. And even when approached with the noblest of intentions, bureaucratic sclerosis and the undue influence of special interests will ultimately undermine a program’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Personally, I would have no problem donating to a charity that helps struggling ex-cons who need to put food on the family table. Perhaps other people wouldn’t feel as comfortable and would instead direct their donations toward charities that only serve, say, hungry women and children who were the victims of violent crime. That’s the beauty of choice, which stands in stark contrast to the ugly, coercive alternative of the political system.

This gets back to the whole question we’ve been exploring for the last several months, most recently since we read Kevin Williamson’s new book The End Is Near And It’s Going To Be Awesome – the food stamp program is a bureaucratic, command-economy Industrial Age construct which is obsolete and idiotic in the 21st century. And in a rich country like the United States there is no reason to think anyone will go hungry or that charitable impulses combined with tax deductions and the power of the Web wouldn’t create a far more efficient, microtargeted and effective solution to the problem of nutrition for the poor without running up billions of dollars more in debt and politicizing the issue.

Is Vitter scoring points with that amendment? Sure. Is it shameless and exploitative? Of course it is. Nobody on the Left has standing to complain about that; they lead the league in shameless attention-whoring, and when they stop exploiting every shooting spree to push gun control or every tornado or hurricane to spout global-warming idiocy then they can start whining about Vitter’s attacks on rapists and pedophiles.

But Dehaven is correct that “abuses” like Vitter’s amendment arise from the very nature of welfare in the first place; so long as you’re dependent on politicians to forcibly extract money from your fellow Americans to distribute to you, don’t be surprised or offended when those politicians make you a pawn for their machinations. That’s a lousy system, and in the Information Age it’s also a wasteful and unnecessary system as well.

As such, Vitter might be doing us a favor by pushing such a “mean-spirited” and “hypocritical” and “hyper-political” ban on food stamps for felons. By showing that conservatives can play just as many cynical games with federal programs as left-wingers can, maybe he can begin to move public opinion away from the whole concept of using the insolvent feds as Santa Claus.

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