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Save Us from the Welfare Surfers

Ahh, the Dignity of Work. It is time, once again, to consider those old standbys, Work and Dignity. According to the House of Representatives, it seems that many a wayward American soul has lost sight of that most cherished ideal: the workday. These Americans have come up with an excuse to get out of work—namely, the recent collapse of the global economy. What a shame, according to elected officials like Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, the subject of a lengthy Washington Post profile Wednesday.

Southerland, a “hard worker,” sure worked hard to attach more stringent work requirements for those wishing to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, aka SNAP benefits, aka food stamps. The number of food stamp beneficiaries has risen sharply since 2000. According to USA Today, 15 percent of Americans are benefiting from food assistance programs. This is due, at least partially, to the recession and the subsequent glacial pace of recovery. Under the 1996 welfare reform rules, the Huffington Post explains, all “able-bodied adults without dependents, known by policy wonks as ‘ABAWDs,’” receive food stamps for just three months “unless they worked or enrolled in training at least 20 hours per week.” The states could apply for a waiver allowing more people to qualify for assistance. Since the 1996 law went into effect, forty-five states have received waivers and more than four million Americans, who wouldn’t have qualified for food assistance otherwise, have benefited.

Southerland’s proposal, as it was folded into the House version of a bill that would fund SNAP (among other programs), eliminates these waivers. This bill passed the lower chamber last week. The rationale behind the proposal is simple: the economy is improving—notwithstanding the fact that many states still have abnormally high unemployment rates.

Unfortunately for politicians like Southerland, the majority of food stamp recipients aren’t the “unemployed California surfer” we’ve been hearing so much about. Much of the growth in food-stamp recipiency is among those who already work, a sign of how far the “recovery” has come in the form of pathetically low-wage jobs.

Several states—Delaware, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—either never took a waiver or have already begun to discontinue their waivers. This federal proposal, therefore, simply serves to stick it to the blue states and Washington, D.C.

Which is politics and, fine, politics is what it is, but good lord, Steve Southerland, could you spare everyone’s dignity and save the speeches about the holiness of work?

From the Washington Post piece: “[Southerland] began as he always does by telling his family story, which aides refer to as ‘the Gospel of Work.’”

“Work is life. Work is opportunity,” he said now. He quoted from the Bible, citing a passage about how God created Adam to tend the Garden of Eden. “Even in paradise, we worked,” he said. “Work is not a punishment. It is what connects you with your purpose in life. What’s your purpose?”

The right-wing attack on SNAP is a bit of a double-pronged, good-cop-bad-cop situation. Southerland, et al., use the rhetoric of “dignity” and “purpose” to help people by complicating their access to basic food needs. At the same time, right-wing media outlets like Fox News go on the attack, raging against the supposed scourge of modern-day welfare queens, caricatures who, because of PC-policing rules, can no longer be described as “strapping young buck” buying “T-bone steaks.” Thanks to these media outlets, the public has been introduced to the surfer buying lobster. Not just any surfer buying lobster using SNAP benefits, either—an “unabashed surfer.”

It was during an investigation into the record number of food stamp recipients that Fox News’ John Roberts met Jason Greenslate, a surfer and rocker who is living the self-described “rat life” in California:

The 29-year-old signed up for SNAP and receives $200 dollars a month in taxpayer money for food. He put it simply, “I don’t got a paycheck coming in, so I qualify.”


So, it was off to the gourmet section of the grocery store, as Greenslate purchased sushi and lobster with his [Electronic Benefit Transfer] card. “All paid for by our wonderful tax dollars,” he said, telling Roberts that’s what he typically buys.

“This is the way I want to live and I don’t really see anything changing,” Greenslate said. “It’s free food; it’s awesome.”

This is what’s happening: Fox News is trying to make us angry at a fellow who has a total of two hundred dollars per month to spend on food. Good heavens, what a racket! And after the feast he puts on to impress the Fox News reporter, he will come close to starving for the remaining twenty-nine days of the month. This one guy is the crux of argument to take food out of the mouths of thousands? Dignity, indeed.