A TV reporter asked me about the potential impact on the SNAP program – also known as food stamps – if the Louisiana budget isn’t fully funded with tax increases as Gov. John Bel Edwards demands. Last week the threat hit the news that if those tax hikes didn’t pass the state’s food stamps program would be canceled.
My answer was not what she expected. I told her that we should fully fund SNAP and all the other social support programs but just as importantly, we should demand to know if or what the governor intends to do to move people off of these programs.
We as a nation have created social safety net programs (SNAP, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.) in order to assure our people that, should they not have resources, they will never be left without some baseline of support. This is a noble challenge but it comes with an incredibly high price tag.
In simple terms the citizens (unfortunately many of these programs have been extended to non-citizens at a very high cost but that is another issue) that need help fall into two categories. First, there are the sick, disabled, old folks, and others who are not able to fend for themselves. Then there are those who just don’t earn enough and qualify purely on economic measures. My concern is how we approach this later group.
Social safety nets like food stamps are there to protect people through bad times. They are not designed to be a way of life. I don’t know how many people take advantage of government largesse but I do know that these programs swell when the economy falters.
Two classic cases come to mind. During the Obama years a poorly-performing economy caused huge numbers of people to give up looking for work and these people flocked to programs like SNAP. Only now under a new president the economy has recovered and SNAP numbers are starting to fall. So a change in leadership that brought on a targeted approach to economic growth resulted in a growth in jobs and income and a corresponding decline in personal dependency upon the government. Those people are far better off and the cost to the rest of us has declined.
In a case closer to home our state has seen an intra-state recession brought on by a volatile energy sector. The result has been unemployment, GDP declines, and out migration of Louisianans . Our governor’s response has been limited to opening up Medicaid to a much larger swath of applicants. Today nearly 33% of our state population is on Medicaid. This is a loud wakeup call that we are a state suffering from a failing economy.
So my point to the TV reporter was, yes we should fund our social safety net, but at the same time what are we doing to improve our economy so that we can move many people into self-reliance? The benefits of economic growth would be substantially better income for our people and a substantial decline in the demand for taxes from those who are contributors to the public weal. It should be reasonable to expect that even as our people are asked for more taxes to support social safety net programs, these requests should be coupled with reforms to make state government more efficient and effective and that focuses our goal on economic growth.
So I asked her exactly what is our governor offering to improve the lives of our people? Anything other than growing government? Is he trying to prioritize state spending so that we get the most from our government? Is he trying to fix the legal climate so that business doesn’t flee the state?Is he trying to continue and enhance the reforms to education so that despite all our spending we see positive results? Is he trying to reform our infrastructure finance model so that our people would be willing to support it? Is he doing anything to make our state appealing to business growth so that our people can have better jobs and growing income? Anything?
There in a nutshell I defined to her the clash of philosophy that is truly the driver in the tax fight going on in Baton Rouge. The governor and his allies, without changing any underlying economic drivers, just want evermore revenue so that we can grow the safety net. No surprise, that was his history in the House and that has been the history of his Party. On the other side are those who believe that better economic conditions must be a precursor to anything else and reducing taxes is the only way to force a reticent governor to change directions. Will that work? Not likely and until leadership changes my expectation is continued dispute.
The root of controversy is not as being reported in the media just a fight over taxes. The root of the controversy is a difference in the fundamental direction of the state. Taxes – like food stamps – are just the flash point, they are not the underlying issue.