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Fighting poverty by embracing abstraction

The war of words concerning the funding of SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka “food stamps”—is a perfect example of why I teach journalism students to use specific detail and avoid lingering on the top rungs of the ladder of abstraction.

A highly publicized “statement on why we need to protect programs for the poor” has pulled in lots of signatures from Christian leaders eager to form a “Circle of Protection.” Sadly, its glittering generalities obscure the real problems with federal anti-poverty programs that have helped millions of poor people but hurt millions more.

Abstract statement: “We urge our leaders to protect and improve poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance to promote a better, safer world.” Of course, but what does that mean? If “protect” means preserving government-to-government grants that allow dictators in poor countries to build up their military forces and steal more from their own people, that doesn’t promote a better, safer world.

Abstract statement: “Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty. …” Of course, but if a decent job means “don’t work at McDonald’s,” and if “decent wages” are above what an entry-level job offers, we’re cutting off the bottom rungs of ladders that allow people to climb out of poverty.

Abstract statement: “Funding focused on reducing poverty … should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.” In the past five years the number of SNAP recipients has soared from 27 million to 47 million. As WORLD has shown, SNAP officials and partners have worked hard to recruit new recipients who were getting along without going on welfare. Has the number of needy people really increased by 74 percent in five years? Might 2 million of those additional 20 million be better off if they had to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder instead of relying on SNAP?

Abstract statement: “We know from our experience serving hungry and homeless people that these [welfare] programs meet basic human needs. … ” Or course they do, for some people—but the huge expansion of these programs in recent years suggests that it would be better to concentrate attention on the truly needy and not encourage dependence on Washington among millions more.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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