Nihil Novi Sub Sole
A surfer from La Jolla, California named Jason Greenslate was profiled recently by FOX News in an unabashedly biased report called “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The most piquant and viral portion of the report is embedded to the left; if you want to watch the whole thing, you can do so on YouTube instead of waiting until Friday when it airs. Yeah, it leaked. They don’t mind a whole lot, I shouldn’t think.
The overt point of the report, of course, is to demonstrate that it has become “too easy” to get public assistance — in this case, SNAP, or what used to be called “food stamps.” And Mr. Greenslate is the poster boy for why that is the case. Mr. Greenslate, a flip, apparently able-bodied, overtly lazy, and thoroughly unrepentant recipient of SNAP was more than happy to go to the grocery store accompanied by FOX’s cameras and use a good portion of his approximately $200-a-month SNAP card to buy sushi and lobster — a lobster he proceeded to barbeque and eat for the cameras.
We’re guided by FOX commenters to think that the real scandal here is not simply the use of government handouts to buy luxury foods but the fact that Mr. Greenslate was so unashamed of his casual abuse of the welfare system. Others call us to consider whether Mr. Greenslate’s indolent lifestyle is true happiness. Even NPR is getting in on the act, calling Mr. Greenslate “Lobster Boy” and highlighting his “unapologetic ” attitude.
The “unapologetic” attitude about receipt of welfare benefits, and the spiteful outrage towards those with that attitude, is something I’m certainly well familiar with from my own eviction practice. Most of the people I evict (sometimes unsuccessfully) out of publicly-subsidized Section 8 housing seem to have a mindset of not even having considered that there is anything wrong with the government paying for their housing instead of them paying for it themselves and indeed have indicated to me in court an unwillingness to get jobs at all lest they endanger their entitlement to “free rent from the government” (their words, not mine).
My clients are certainly free to express outrage at the disparity between their tenants getting public money while they have to support themselves. I don’t discourage them since part of my job is to serve as a vent for their frustrations so that they can eventually accept the practical result that the courts will dispense. I usually demur to the more politically-shaded questions, indicating that I avoid politics in my professional life. But their frustration simmers over anyway, part of the emotional stresses I absorb on a daily basis. So the FOX News report was in that sense a big old “more of the same” to me.
My response to it was, “I’ve seen this on the news before, too.” The first public outrage I thought of was Nadya Suleman, the infamous “Octomom.” You may recall that shortly after she became a thing in the tabloid media, she made a statement of some sort attacking those who questioned her having literally fourteen children while holding down no apparent job and seemingly receiving public assistance as her only means of financial support. (Ms. Suleman actually now lives in my community; she lost her home in the big city to the south of us. And she’s being investigated for welfare fraud.)
But then I thought to myself, “Self, you can do better than that. Lobster on food stamps. You’ve seen this before.”
Just two years ago, in fact, in potins scandaleux du jour from Michigan. The story even included willful defiance of a suggestion that this was abuse, and was verified by urban legend debunking website snopes.com. At that point, I stopped looking, because I knew that I could dig back two years past that and two years past that and probably find minor public outrages bursting out about every two years over someone on food stamps buying lobster (or some other sort of luxury food).
Which means, of course, the issue is not whether public assistance can be used this way. Clearly, it can. Unless you live in Maine where it’s really cheap, lobster is almost certainly not the wisest purchase for someone who actually needs SNAP to survive. Unclear from the excerpt in the FOX news report about Jason “Lobster Boy” Greenslate is what other sources of financial support he gets — it would appear that he blew out a big percentage of his SNAP benefits on that single barbeque, with no worries whatsoever that he would lack for food in the future. Proof that nobody starves in the USA! Truly we live on the Isle of the Blessed.
So perhaps the editorial (I won’t call it “news”) frames the issue correctly, then: if Mr. Greenslate can so easily find other means of support for himself that he can afford to use his SNAP benefits on luxury food, then maybe the program is flawed.
Of course the program is flawed. How could it be perfect? What government program is? Social security pays out money to retirees who could easily survive without it. Medicare and the VA provides medical care to some people who have ample incomes and private health insurance. In my own experience, Section Eight housing subsidies are given to people who seem to possess the apparent means to pay full rent on their own. Lots of people get unemployment benefits while actually working, often getting paid cash under the table. This happens every day. Mr. Greenslate buying lobster is hardly a unique phenomenon, and neither is his own attitude about it.
$200 a month is most assuredly not a generous benefit to the truly needy. Mr. Greenslate may not be truly needy but we have to come up with some sort of objective definitions for eligibility, and inevitably when that happens people will — surprise! — respond to the incentives thus created and figure out ways to game the system. If we have any sort of welfare system, it’s going to get gamed.
We could have no system at all, I suppose, but that’s actually quite unacceptable. I would reject categorically the idea that in the wealthiest food-producing societies in the world, anyone should lack for food. That is, of course, why we have social welfare in the first place. If some jerkoff in La Jolla plays games with the system and buys lobster with his SNAP card, and then is foolish and/or stoned enough to giggle about it on TV, shame on him. But if hundreds of thousands of kids were to go to bed hungry every night,* then shame on all of us.
If FOX News’ reporters want to point out that Jason Greenslate and the guy in Michigan and whoever else came before them ought to be ashamed of themselves, so be it. I’m good with that. What I’m not good with is taking that outrage and using it, as the report overtly suggests, as a justification for a dramatic change in our social welfare structure.
There are a lot of people who game the welfare system. But so what? Giving money to people to subsidize their lives, primarily in the form of either direct financial assistance or some kind of public medical insurance benefit, is the majority function of the government, or at least very close to it, if you measure the government’s activity in dollars.
We’re not going to give that up, we’re not going to stop doing that. Nor should we. Some people abuse the system and others could survive without it. But the system itself is so thoroughly integrated into society, into our collective lives, that tolerating a degree of abuse is something we’re just going to have to do. Individual shaming of obvious abuses of the spirit of the system is fine. Individual abuses of the welfare system, even aggregated in a fair way, are not what’s breaking the bank in Washington.
Which is why we shouldn’t let the heaping of perhaps well-deserved shame upon individuals who abuse the social welfare system govern public policy decisions we make for the entire country.
That the basis for the outrage is recycled only underlines this point.
* I’ve seen the commercials and I don’t believe them. I disbelieve the claim that one in five children in the United States are at serious risk of starvation, and you should be skeptical of such claims, too. The real number is about one in a thousand, and that’s using a definition with a fair amount of cushion.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.