Less Poverty Or Less Hunger?
Religion & Liberty Online

Less Poverty Or Less Hunger?

The U.S. government food stamp program, better known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is being credited for “alleviating poverty” as the government releases statistics for 2012.

SNAP plays a crucial, but often underappreciated, role in alleviating poverty,” said Stacy Dean, an expert on the program with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that focuses on social programs and budget policy.

The Washington Post goes so far as to say “4 million more people would be poor” if it weren’t for SNAP.

I’m not an economist, but I’m puzzled by this. As I see it, SNAP may add to a family’s “income” and if one is counting poverty statistics that way, I can see the point. But people who use SNAP aren’t less poor; they are just less hungry. Is that really lifting people out of poverty? Of course not.

Kevin W. Concannon, the under secretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services, even though he touts SNAP as being helpful, has to backtrack on the government’s claim of “alleviating poverty”:

Even if SNAP doesn’t have the effect of lifting someone out of poverty, it moves them further up,” Mr. Concannon said.

He doesn’t say what “further up” means, though.

The Washington Post is in the same muddle: “That doesn’t mean they’re not still poor, of course, but it can sure help to not have to worry about going hungry all the time.”

Shouldn’t we be talking about “poverty alleviation” in terms of people being able to feed themselves and their families without government assistance? Shouldn’t poverty alleviation be about the creation of jobs and a personal income that sustains families? What comes to mind is the vision promoted by PovertyCure:

When we put the person at the center of our economic thinking, we transform the way we look at wealth and poverty. Instead of asking what causes poverty, we begin to ask, what causes wealth? What are the conditions for human flourishing from which prosperity can grow? And how can we create and protect the space for people to live out their freedom and responsibilities?

It’s disingenuous to claim that 4 million people have been lifted from poverty due to SNAP. SNAP doesn’t lessen poverty; it lessens hunger. That’s a good thing, but a better thing is wealth creation and human flourishing.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.