America’s new poor: A universal problem

More than 36 million people in America use little plastic cards from the government to pay for basic staples at the grocery store.

The cards replace food stamps, which are now called “nutritional aid,” a government attempt to help erase the stigma of turning to Uncle Sam to help put food on the table.

Good thing, because one in four children today eat food purchased by the government’s “nutritional aid” program. In all-American Peoria, Illinois, the town where politicians used to ask “how does it play in Peoria?,” 40 percent of children get food from what used to be called “food stamps.”

As the recession/depression deepens, more and more American families go on the public dole to survive. More and more people drawing public assistance — which used to be called “welfare” — are those used to working for a living and now face a future without a job and without hope.

They are the new poor — and their numbers are growing.

Reports The New York Times:

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps “nutritional aid” instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.

From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

Whoa! Wait a second! Back up! Did they say George W. Bush helped erase the stigma of getting food stamps? A Republican made getting help from the government more mainstream?

Yep, and that little known fact still pisses off the more extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party.

Bush did a lot of things badly but in this case his administration put the needs of the American people above the petty, partisan politics of GOP extremists. It’s something die-hard partisans should remember when they attempt to lay blame for the current economic crisis on either Bush or current President Barack Obama.

The roots of the economic mess that plunged America into the deepest recession since the Great Depression go back a long way, before Obama or Bush. Both parties — and the all-American, bi-partisan cancer called greed — worked in harmony to put the nation in its current plight.

Some lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and “Reagannomics.” Conservatives go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt and his “new deal” programs which helped lift the nation out of the depression.

But the fault lies with the failures of Presidents from both parties and the failed leadership of Congress when Democrats or Republicans were in charge. The fault lies with all of us who ignored the warning signs over the decades because even as the national debt and deficit grew, most of us didn’t worry about it as long as we got easy lines of credit and bought houses we couldn’t afford with “no document” loans and easy financing.

We didn’t care when the North American Free Trade Agreement sent jobs out of the country because those jobs weren’t ours and we continued to buy cheap Chinese-made goods at Wal-Mart.

Republicans argue that the current economic mess belongs to Obama while ignoring the policies of the Bush Administration that helped fuel the drive towards economic oblivion. Democrats blame the whole mess on Bush while ignoring the policies (like NAFTA) that came out of the Clinton years. Republicans blame Clinton while forgetting that a Republican-controlled Congress aided and abetted his programs. The seeds of destruction were sewn long ago and started long before many of us were born.

The problems that face this nation are more systemic than political. Politics comes into play because the system is dominated by political agendas but nothing will change as long as the system that feeds the problem remains in place. Changing the political party in power will not fix the problem. Neither will replacing one flawed political philosophy with another.

America cannot, and will not, change until Americans change from a greed-oriented society to one that puts the needs of nation above the instant gratification of the few.

The 36 million Americans who currently use “nutritional aid” to buy groceries represent more than 10 percent of the country’s current population of 308 million people. Yet statistics from the government say only about 50 percent of those eligible for that assistance actually apply for it, meaning 72 million, or 23 percent, could be using the program.

If one-quarter of the population of a country called the “richest and most powerful nation on earth” need help just to put food on the table we have a problem, a problem that is not just Democratic or Republican. It is an American problem that needs an American solution. Both sides of the philosophical and political fence helped get us into this mess and it will take a united effort by Americans — not partisans — to dig us out.