This morning on C-Span, my beloved and I are watching Tom Vilsak, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, take questions from the House Committee on Agriculture. What caught my attention was a sequence in which a congressman from Kentucky (I believe it was Rep. Hal Rogers, of the Fifth District, i.e., Bluegrass Country) expressed concern about advertising or soliciting people to sign up for SNAP, aka Food Stamps. It was a simple exchange, really. The member of congress wanted to be sure the Dept of Agriculture is not encouraging people to sign up. The secretary said that 1) since the program has been voted and funded, the department educates people about it; 2) the department does not pay anyone to go out and recruit people to sign up, in order for the recruiter to receive a per capita payment; and 3) the details of informing the public is funded by the department, but the states define the mechanism within their borders.
When the member of congress persisted that what some people call “education” looks a lot like “recruitment” when it gets so many more people to sign up, the secretary rejoined that surely the member of Congress wants people who need food stamps and are eligible to receive them. No one, said the secretary, wants food stamps going to people who are not eligible, but that is not inherent in a rising number receiving them. He looks forward to having a reduction in recipients as the economy continues to improve.
That was the pragmatic approach: it’s been decided and it’s getting done. It avoided the philosophical question completely, by saying that he is dealing with an amount that has been voted.
But suppose he had taken a different tack? Suppose, instead of using national numbers, the secretary had focused into food stamp increases in Kentucky. Because it turns out Kentucky has had a large increase in SNAP usage recently, and reasonable minds might wonder why.
Suppose the secretary had said,
“Your state, sir, is a good example of what we’re up against. Kentucky’s median household income in 2000 was $43,821. In 2012, it was $41,784. Even after accounting for the margin of error, there are many more families in Kentucky who have seen their household income go down. Consequently, your state’s SNAP participation has gone from 600,000 families to over 800,000 families. Now to me, although that looks like a huge expansion of the program, when I see those income numbers, I am grateful to the Congress for allowing me to help feed those Kentucky families.”
And then he stops. Waits to see what the interrogator says.
It would not have been hard for the secretary to prepare for that exchange. It has taken me less than twenty minutes to put this together, because I call up US Census numbers all the time and my computer knows which ones I usually look at. And although there are fifty states and several territories represented in Congress, not all of them have delegates scheduled for that hearing that day.
This approach is not just for the secretary of Agriculture. How many of us sit spewing vitriol at our televisions, posting angry, derisive memes across our Facebook pages? Yet how are we going to reach people who are hurting themselves if we do not model concern about their pain? And the first step would be to stop hurting the, with our anger and derision. Instead, let’s join them in facing this new world we’re in, and talking about the victims who are important to those we deride.
I’m not saying it will work. But whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. Maybe this can help.