A brief Bible study on SNAP benefits

Hi Joel,

This SNAP proposal is so detestable that I can hardly believe it. Which makes me think that it might not be believable. That is, the goal might not be to really legislate but to intimidate, to punish poor Americans (who tend to be more likely to vote Democrat) and to shame those on the border of poverty to accepting ever shittier wages and insecure jobs because, God forbid, you don’t want to need food stamps.

No debate about food stamps ever goes too far without someone from the Christian Right quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10  (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” which Lenin took up as a slogan, too.) which is weird, this advice is about how to be part of a small Christian enclave that was struggling to survive. Paul (or whoever wrote it in his name) never gave advice about governing a nation. His words were sound: If everyone who was able wasn’t working (which, like, literally, meant finding enough calories for everyone to survive), the endeavor would have toppled. Additionally, making sure that everyone was busy taking care of the community meant that there was less time for gossip and backbiting (other problems Paul had to address to such groups).

But he never tells the community that everyone must get a paying job. Throughout his letters, Paul admonishes people to take on different roles, to care for each other and especially for the young and old and ill. In fact, his advice in 3:10 shows us that the standard for the community was that everyone’s needs were met by the collective work of the group. His advice in 3:10 is about when Christians could be excused from that standard, which means he was affirming that real Christians should almost always be communalists.

Even if we wanted to apply his warning that “if any would not work, neither should he eat” to SNAP… well, we’ve done so by creating a system that is hard to game. People who receive SNAP benefits are people who are unable to work, either through illness or disability. More to the point, 40% of people receiving SNAP benefits DO work. We just pay them poorly in order to subsidize earnings for businesses and, by extension, stockholders. The fraud here is committed by employers who don’t pay enough for their workers to buy food.

Then there is this passage from 2 Thessalonians 3:14 that I hear informing the cruel politics of Republicans, though I never hear anyone quote it because that would be too honest:

Take note of those who do not obey…. [H]ave nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed.

The threat of hunger is terrible enough, but I fear that the larger goal is to further establish that these poor people are not part of us. They are not our problem because they are not ours. And I think that what really motivates this attitude isn’t the desire to make poor people not our problem but to make them not us. The poor are reviled not because they are a burden (We carry the burden of the rich all the time!) but because they remind us that you can work hard and still be poor. They are the evidence that this whole damned system doesn’t work like it pretends to. And we cannot look at that evidence because it would just call too much into question.

What did Jesus say about the matter?


Image result for jesus feeds the multitude in artAbove, The Feeding of the Five Thousand by Hendrik de Clerck. Some readings of this text argue that Jesus didn’t multiply fish but instead opened hearts. The real miracle was that he led the people around them to share their food with each other. Like Christians should do if they follow Jesus’ model. 

Well, he fed everyone. It was one of the things he was known for.

And he told us to do the same, without question.

And this is what God does for us and thus what we ought to do for others.

In Matthew 7, Jesus asks,

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?

It was a rhetorical question, but I’m not sure of today’s Republicans would understand that. 

Jesus continues:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

The implication here is that even evil people know how to care for the vulnerable who belong to them. 

I’m not sure where that leaves Republicans.



The unbearable whiteness of being liberal


Dear Rebecca:

This week marks the 18th anniversary of my first move to Lawrence, Kansas. I’d drifted through a couple of jobs after graduating college, but Lawrence was the place where I finally felt at home.  The music, the art, the liberals. There was nothing else like it in the Kansas I’d grown up in, and even when we left to go to Philly for eight years, I always knew that Lawrence would be the home I returned to.

Still. There’s this.

It is that time of year where a new report comes out that reminds us that Lawrence it is not a very diverse place. It is also the time of year people act surprised by that finding.

Out of 501 cities, Lawrence was ranked as the 316th most culturally diverse city in the country. The report also provided some sub-rankings. Lawrence ranked No. 329 when you look at race and ethnicity; it ranked No. 296 in the category of different languages spoken; and ranked No. 185 in the area of foreign-born population. So, in other words, we were below the median in all categories except foreign-born population.

This might not be worth mentioning, except for this:

Racial segregation in American cities isn’t a new occurrence, but a 2013 study revealed that segregation rates in cities have remained relatively unchanged over the years. The study conducted by professors John Logan and Brian Stults at Brown University and Florida State University showed that Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis and other cities that have a high concentration of liberals are overwhelmingly segregated.

Liberal cities have a way of being super-duper white. African Americans make up more than 13 percent of the population, but just six percent of the residents of cities like San Francisco and Portland that wear their lefty politics on their sleeve. In Lawrence, it’s less than five percent.

This is … embarrassing.

It suggests that those of us who make the biggest, loudest virtue of our embrace of diversity do the crappiest job of living those values. Conservatives aren’t always wrong to suspect us of hypocrisy on this front.

The human inclination is tribalistic. We sort ourselves by ideology, by race, by religion, and even liberals tend to settle into locations where the people around them look and think like them. It’s understandable, even. Living with diversity isn’t always easy – not because diversity is bad, but because we foible-filled humans aren’t good at practicing the empathy and patience needed to accommodate the experiences of others.

But that’s also a cop-out.

I’m not sure what the right thing to do is. Should we leave Lawrence and move over to, say, Kansas City, Kan. in order to live out our values more fully?

The culture we live in is the sum of all the individual choices we make. Liberals, whatever our professed values, seem to choose whiteness an awful lot. We’re responsible for the result.

— Joel

Eating the Rich Might be Our Only Option

Hi Joel,

The Republican party is the party of fiscal responsibility, yet they want to change our food stamp program in such as way that nearly guarantees increased waste?

The party of less government is supporting a plan that will decrease services delivered by $200 billion while increasing bureaucracy?

They’re the party of individual responsibility, yet they want the government to do the grocery shopping for others?

They’re the party of rural America, yet they are arguing for a policy that will take money out of local agriculture?

school lunchShould the people who call this school lunch a complete meal appropriate for children be making decisions about what others eat?

Wow. There must be some really, really big payoff in order for them to violate so many of their own principles, as they will be doing if they support Trump’s proposal to replace SNAP benefits with boxes of processed food.

Oh, yeah–there is. They get to hate poor people some more.

What other incentive is there?

Yes, the purpose of this is to absolutely to strip poor people of the dignity of choice, to infantilize them, to shame them as we shame little children who cannot be trusted to make good choices. It is also, I think, to continue to shift the burden of care to the states to pick up, and blue states will, because they don’t believe people in America should die of hunger, and red states won’t, because they’re Social Darwinists. In places like Lawrence, Kansas, Jubilee Cafe will continue serving breakfast to whoever wants it, offering them not just hot and nutritious food prepared with love but their choice of that food, and that matters.

But I don’t want to defend the dignity of choice, as much as it matters. In fact, I want to criticize it as our response to this inhumane proposal. When we make choice the issue, we lift up our value as consumers. Beggars can’t be choosers, and we make sure that people know that they are beggars by not giving them choices. But that doesn’t mean that giving us choices makes us not-beggars.

Framing our value as consumers is, I think, the long-term wrong move if we seek justice. We’re citizens–a term I use broadly–, not consumers. We care about our fellow citizens because we value human lives.

The “values” of the Republican party are consistent. That is, they consistently only value people for their role in the market. If you aren’t a touted “job creator” (and rewarded for that with a tax cut and the label “investor,” as opposed to Chuck Grassley’s “hookers-and-blow” vision of a poor person) you’d best be a consumer in the Republican world. (Interesting, wealth hoarders are quasi-religious figures to them.) Otherwise, do you even exist to a Republican? What is America to them if it’s not a place of stuff being exchanged? What is an American if not a conduit through which capital flows?

Republicans hate poor people because poor people have failed (in their measurement) to properly produce or consume. And the punishment for that is to starve you.

A week ago, I couldn’t have said that I mean that literally. Now I do.



Trump’s food stamp idea is bad for the poor, bad for governance


Dear Rebecca:

Just another day in the war on the poor:

The proposal would bring a fundamental change to a program that for the past 40 years has allowed recipients to use SNAP benefits at grocery stores as if they were cash. SNAP provides an average of $125 per month to 42.2 million Americans.

Under the full-scale redesign, the Agriculture Department would use a portion of those benefits to buy and deliver a package of U.S.-grown commodities — officially dubbed “America’s Harvest Box” — to recipients, using the government’s buying power to lower costs.

We already know this is a bad idea.

When governments give people in-kind support like food, it frequently costs more to deliver that support than it would to distribute cash—and for the same or even a lesser impact. Jesse Cunha of the Naval Postgraduate School conducted a randomized trial of cash versus in-kind transfers in rural Mexico. In addition to finding that cash recipients didn’t spend more on tobacco or alcohol, Cunha learned that those who received cash experienced the same improvements in nutrition and child-health measures as those who received food. But the food program cost at least 20 percent more to administer, and the cash program led to significantly higher non-food consumption by recipients. In other words: At less cost to the government, cash programs led to the same health outcomes as food-based programs, but also provided additional resources for recipients to spend on schooling, medicine, and transport.

This is not a one-off finding. In many cases, cash programs are simply much more effective than in-kind transfers at turning dollars spent into positive nutritional outcomes. A 2013 survey by Sarah Bailey for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank—involving Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Malawi, and Yemen, among other countries—found that cash transfers usually led to far greater increases in a “food consumption score” of dietary diversity and food frequency than did similarly priced food delivery.

There’s more:

Cash also has a larger multiplier effect. Bring food from elsewhere to an area, and the impact of that food stops with those who eat it. Give people cash and they spend it on goods provided by local farmers and traders, who are often poor themselves and benefit as well.

I know SNAP benefits aren’t precisely cash, but you can spend them like cash, and I’m guessing the results are the same. Shipping a box to recipients instead of letting them shape their own diets with SNAP money is bad governance, bad for the poor, and even bad for local economies.

Other than that, fantastic.

— Joel

Kris Kobach’s Loss is America’s Gain.

Hi Joel,

How can those of us outside of Kansas help prevent any more power flowing to Kris Kobach?

Kobach, for those readers lucky enough not to have to encounter him in their own electoral politics, is Kansas’ Secretary of State. He’s eyeing the governorship now that Sam Brownback is the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a rather odd job for a man who is a proponent of “religious freedom” as a tool to curtail other liberties and undermine the social safety network. As much as I think that Brownback’s ranking as one of America’s worst governors is fair, Kobach would be even worse. Like Brownback, he’s ambitious, but while we’ve been able to funnel Brownback to a relatively low-status role in the federal government, I’m doubtful that Kobach would be satisfied with that kind of next step in his own career should he win the governor’s race in Kansas. He’s recently had one foot in federal politics already, as he was a key figure on the recently-disbanded Presidential Election Committee on Election Integrity.

Kobach’s ideas are evil and the man is neither honest nor smart, but that doesn’t seem to slow him in Kansas. Oh, and he’s incompetent and lazy, as his total oblivion to the fact that a veteran’s charity of which is a board member is basically a scam organization–the very kind of organization that an a state-level politician should be fighting against, not sitting atop.

Kobach hides his assault on civil rights behind the claim that he’s fighting voter fraud, but some groups have politely pointed out that the results are discriminatory, as evidenced by the fact that people of color are overrepresented among those who have been disenfranchised.

Kobach has offered the counterargument that last year’s report  that the Kansas Advisory Committee supplied to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which contains an analysis by Michael Smith, chair of Emporia State University’s political science department, detailing this looks like “it’s been written by a third-grader,” that it is poorly-reasoned, and that it contained “glaring errors.”

That is how Kobach speaks about citizens who voluntarily work as part of the federally-mandated state-level, non-partisan organization tasked with monitoring citizens’ ability to access the voting booth. It’s how he speaks about a highly respected scholarly expert in state-level politics. This is not a person who values the contributions of the citizens he is seeking to serve. Kobach is not a person who appreciates oversight or accountability.  He’s also willing to use insults and vague accusations to undermine people who are critical of his work. His behavior and his words suggest that he despises people and democratic principles.

Kobach calls the evidence that his voter ID campaign racist in its implementation to be “poorly reasoned,” yet he claims innocence when confronted with the idea that the ID requirement is a poll tax because it forces citizens who can rightfully vote to pay the state for identification papers before they can do so. Rather than steering as far as he can Jim Crow era laws, Kobach is trying to get as close to them as he can. And I have no doubt that if he could re-implement the grandfather clause or the literacy test, he would. (Look at how Trump is now working to make it possible to deny American citizens born to non-citizens services such as Headstart. This is another kind of grandfather clause–to deny citizens their rights because their parents were not born here.)

Kobach does not care about serving poor Kansans (of whom there are more and more). When asked about the burden the voter ID law places on the poor, Kobach dismissed the concern, saying that whether this is a burden “depends on how you define burden.” How many people need to be burden before Kobach admits that this is burdensome? Trick question! Kobach doesn’t care if poor people or people of color are burdened. He’ll get a little bad press when the very elderly in nursing homes can’t get valid IDs to vote, but he’ll ride out the stories of denying the vote to women born before the 19th Amendment or World War II heroes.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 11.14.08 AM.png

On the one hand, you have his incompetence. On the other, his disdain for democracy and the American people. Above, Kris Kobach announces his run for the governor’s office. 

Kobach shows his colors when he argues that the “majority of Kansans” support his policy. It does not matter if 99% of Kansans agree with the policy. Their opinion is not legally important or relevant to Kobach’s job. His invocation of “popular opinion” shows he’s not fit for his job. (But we knew this from his totally absurd, laughed-out-of-court attempt to invoke executive privilege–when he was not working with the executive office and, in fact, he was working with Trump before Trump was in the executive office–in refusing to turn over documents that he exposed to public scrutiny through his carelessness.)

The cherry on top of my anger sundae is that Kobach argues that rising voter registration means that there can’t be voter suppression. I am not sure if Kobach is this stupid or if he just expects us to be, but, in either case, that single statement should be enough for any thinking person to vote against him. Because you can, in fact, have some voters who are losing their right to vote even as other voters are registering to vote. You can even have more people registering than people being disenfranchised, which would result in a net gain of voters even as there are losses in particular populations, like among people of color, members of tribes, the poor, and the elderly.

My comfort is in hoping that the majority of those new voters will be dedicating their votes to those Kobach is disenfranchising. Kobach is mostly a loser (Like, he’s lost here and here and here and here and here and, just this week, here, all humiliating losses for someone who is paid to know the law.) so he should be used to it.  Kansans need to nip his little bud now and send the message to other Republicans that their hostility to voters isn’t going to work.








The deportation of Sayed Jamal does not make my city great


UPDATE: Good news for once!

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 5.13.44 PM

Too close for comfort. And it doesn’t make this a “good” system. The sentiments I express below are still very much in effect. But we’ll take this blessing for he moment.


Dear Rebecca:

Bad news from Lawrence, KS:

A judge has ruled against Syed Jamal. He is reportedly being taken to a plane for deportation, according to Marci Leuschen, who created a change.org petition on Jamal’s behalf, which about 94,000 people have signed. The Kansas City, Mo., law firm representing Jamal said on Facebook that his legal team had filed a last-minute appeal around 1 p.m. Monday along with a fresh motion for a stay of removal. “At this time there is no stay of removal in place and Mr. Jamal is at risk of removal,” the Facebook post said.

This is probably always how this story was going to end. But it is painful nonetheless.

I do not see how this deportation makes America greater.

I do not see how this deportation makes America better.

I do not see how this deportation makes America safer.

I do know that it wounds three children, all U.S. citizens, who are losing their father. I’m not sure what the country gains in the tradeoff.

Maybe I’m not the person to try and tackle the question. My conservative friends – and even my not so conservative friends – point out that every country has and exercises the right to decide who may come and who may stay. When my governing hat is on and my Mennonite hat set aside for the moment, I recognize this is true.

Put the Mennonite hat on, though, and problems with that stance become clear. For one: Most of us would not be here if the country’s original inhabitants had been given much of a say, I don’t think, and certainly not if they’d applied the standards to our ancestors that our countrymen do to today’s immigrants. The long-term principle involved seems to be that might makes right – we took the country because we could and we’ll keep other people out because we can. If that seems churlish – I don’t think so. I have a conservative friend who disputes the idea that we’re a nation of immigrants – what really happened, he says, was a conquering. And that’s part of how he justifies his immigration hawkishness. It seems icky to me.

This friend also contends that diversity is not our strength, as liberals contend, but our weakness. He posted this Facebook quote this week: “Of the top ten most diverse countries in the world, every single one has suffered major, lethal political violence since 2001. Diversity is not some holy sacrament, it is a deadly serious socio-political challenge that needs to be prudently managed.”
Let’s look at the list of most-diverse countries, shall we?

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 4.26.15 PM

Some people will notice that these countries are largely African. What I notice? That at least eight of the 10 have emerged from colonial rule only since 1960, and a ninth — South Africa — only emerged from apartheid that was the legacy of colonialism in the last 30 years.

At this stage in American development, our country had yet to fight its Civil War. Young nations tend to be fractious. But let’s be honest: Living with diversity can be hard. So maybe, in this case, correlation and causation aren’t so far apart. Let’s look at the 10 least diverse countries in the index and see what we turn up.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 4.31.01 PM

Welp. If only we had the freedom from violence of Yemen! The stability of Greece! The dovishness of North Korea!

My conservative friends say countries have the right to put up gates, to decide who comes in, to decide who stays. They are not wrong. And yet, when it comes time to decide who gets in and who stays, we make decisions that feel very wrong.

Those decisions are based on race — no, I don’t believe those folks who argue for “culture” as being a dividing line. Those decisions are also based on wealth.

Nevermind that this country was built by poor people who, crazily enough, weren’t quite white enough in their day. There was a time when Italian and Irish and even Germans were considered dirty, lesser, mongrels. “But they assimilated” my conservative friend says. Then again, so is the current generation of immigrants.

I don’t know how to make immigration policy. What we’re doing now, though, empowering a police state that swoops down on families and destroys them? I know that’s wrong, and destructive. And I find myself wondering about conservative friends who get angry when he government goes overboard to stop the threat of unpasteurized milk but are fine when it manhandles a fiftysomething father who posed less threat to the health of his community than the bacteria-filled dairy.

I don’t know how to make immigration policy. But I know three children miss their father tonight. And that seems to me greater than any harm done by the act of staying here without permission.

— Joel

Notes on Creeping Authoritarianism: A party can only control 2 branches of government

Hi Joel,

I think we need a new regular series in which we observe the creeping authoritarianism of the Republican party and citizens’ acquiescence to it.

I’ll go first.

Saturday’s tweet from Trump regarding DACA. In it, Trump argues that Republicans have done more to fix DACA than have Democrats. His evidence is that the Democrats had all three branches of government from 2008-2011 and didn’t do anything about DACA.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 11.08.14 AM

Like, every word here is a lie, the most obvious being that Bush was the president in 20018 and that DACA didn’t exist until Obama.

But what really jumps out at me isn’t Trump’s ignorance of recent electoral history.

Where I see the creeping fascism is in Trump’s claim that the Democrats controlled all three branches of government: the executive, Congress, and the judicial branch.

The judicial branch is independent of political party. While federal judges are appointed by politicians, they are supposed to be independent of party. At the Supreme Court level, this has proven to be basically true in practice. Indeed, Republican-appointed SCOTUS Justices are particularly (and, for Republicans, often frustratingly) immune from influence by their parties.

What does it mean that Trump made this mistake?

On the one hand, it’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t understand how government works. He certainly doesn’t understand how the economy or businesses or marriages or the White House works. He certainly couldn’t pass a citizenship test, and I doubt he could pass 8th grade civics even if he took the course again.

On the other hand…

Republicans who love liberty need to vote against this man and all those who will try to ride his coattails.