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This morning I was listening to a piece on NPR about the Food Stamp (SNAP) bill that's going through Congress.  The Republicans want to cut funding for the program -- which has already seen funding cuts this year in order to ensure that the money is available for those who "really need it".  The piece did not explain who the Republicans think these "really needy" people are, but their big source of outrage is that there is a guy in California who uses his SNAP card to buy sushi and lobster and that this proves that the system is riddled with corruption and abuse.  Apparently, the best way to prevent people from misusing government funds is to make sure there are less funds there for them to abuse.

This is of a deep concern to my wife and I because we have been on Public Assistance since the auto parts plant where I used to work shut down.  We have hopes that my current temp job at a local factory will lead to a better-paying permanent position, but the company is currently under a hiring freeze and there are no guarantees.

But thinking about the matter reminded me of a piece I wrote for Street Prophets some years back.  I hope you don't mind; it sort of mutates into a homily around the seventh inning as I wander off into  the Doctrine of Grace and other theological musings irrelevant to the bill at hand.

Then again, they might not be irrelevant after all.  Many of the conservative voices demanding to "reform" the Food Stamp program also claim to be Defenders of the Faith.  No doubt they think they are doing God's work and cheerfully anticipate their Reward in Heaven when they receive their Just Desserts.

Just Desserts

Once when I was working as a supermarket cashier back in Darkest Iowa, a college student came through my lane with a carton of wine coolers. She wanted to pay for it with Food Stamps, but I had to refuse her. Legally, I could not accept Food Stamps for alcohol and even if I wanted to, my cash register wouldn’t let me. Somewhat embarrassed, she set it aside and paid for the carton with cash.

After the student left, the next customer in line gave me a piece of her mind. It was outrageous, she said, that anyone would use Food Stamps, which were paid for out of her tax money, for alcohol. When I observed that the girl paid cash, the lady replied that if she was so poor that she was receiving Food Stamps then the girl had no right to be buying wine coolers, no matter what she used to pay for them.

This was something I often encountered. A customer would use her Food Stamps to buy, say, a steak, or a cake from the bakery; and another customer would observe the transaction with silent, or sometimes not-so-silent, judgment. How dare someone on Public Assistance spend that assistance on luxuries?

To which I would mutter something about how I didn’t make the rules, I just followed them.

I think this attitude stems from a human suspicion of charity. We don’t want to be cheated. If we give something to a person in need, we want to be sure that person really deserves it and isn’t just taking advantage of our generosity.

Eliza Doolittle’s father, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, lamented that he was a member of the "undeserving poor": the type of poor person who was never given charity because he didn’t have a job, or because he was likely to spend it all on drink.

I notice this whenever someone is proposing a government program to provide aid for someone or other. We want our charity to help the people who need help, but don’t want it to go to cheats who are just looking for a handout. So the program becomes encumbered with regulations to follow and criteria to match and hoops to jump through and several layers of bureaucracy to run it all. The end result is that some people who deserve help are shut out because they don’t fit the paperwork, and some who don’t manage to game the system anyway. And instead of managing the system, the bureaucracy becomes oriented towards keeping people out.

My wife and I were on Food Stamps ourselves when I was a cashier, and every other month the State would inform us that they were dropping our benefits because we failed to report our income for that month. My wife would call them up and say "No we didn’t, check again." Then they’d check their records and say, "Oh. Never mind." She was convinced they did that deliberately to try to intimidate us out of the system.

The problem with limiting our generosity to only those who deserve it is that we can’t tell who deserves help; only who need it. Only God can look into our hearts and see what we really deserve. And thankfully, he blesses us anyway.

Jesus told a parable once about a guy who owned a vineyard. He needed some day labor to help with the harvest, so first thing in the morning he went to the temp agency and offered a day’s wage to anyone who would work for him. A couple hours later he went there again and made the same offer. And he did the same thing at noon and in the afternoon.

At the end of the day, he had all the workers line up to get paid; the most recent hires first; and he paid out a full day’s wage to each one.

Now the workers who were hired in the morning complained. "What’s the deal? We’ve been working for you all day! Those other guys only had to work a couple hours! How come they get paid the same amount as us?"

"Hey, I paid you exactly what I promised," the boss replied. "If I want to pay the other guys the same amount, that’s my business. So I’m generous; you got a problem with that?"

St. Paul tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In regards to God, all of us belong to the Undeserving Poor. But God doesn’t bless us according to our desserts; he doesn’t love us for our virtue or our wisdom or our ninja skills or our cute but roguish charm. By Grace are we saved, and that means Undeserved Love.

I know the only reason I’m getting into Heaven is because I have a Friend in High Places who’ll let me in; so I’m willing to cut other people some slack too. Even the people ahead of me in line in the supermarket.

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