Each year, just before the Jewish New Year, I visit the same Central Massachusetts apple orchard to buy apples.
It’s a tradition in my family. It goes along with the practice of eating apples and honey on the holiday to symbolize hope for a sweet year ahead.
The orchard is nearly 100 years old. Part of the charm, from my perspective, is that, other than the trunks of the apple trees being thicker than they used to be, not much has visibly changed about the place in the 40 or so years I’ve been going there.
Back in 2011, I took a photograph of a black-and-white “No Trespassing” sign posted along the orchard’s fence. "Thievery will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the sign warned. "Road patrolled."
I took a picture of that sign not only because its aesthetic seemed like something from another era, but because, never mind what some might read as the message’s slightly hostile undertones, I respected the farmer for defending his property rights.
This year, though, the "No Trespassing" signs were gone.
Instead there was a new sign that I didn’t remember from years past. You couldn’t miss the large, neon-green poster as you walked into the orchard, "SNAP Benefits — Food Stamps — Pay in Store."
There you have it: the story of the past 20 years of American decline, in two signs. We’ve gone from a law-and-order country with strong property rights — "No Trespassing, Thievery will be prosecuted" — to a welfare state — "SNAP Benefits— Food Stamps — Pay in Store."
These days, if you can’t afford the apples, you don’t even have to bother to steal them. Instead, Washington politicians will borrow money from China or from future generations and pay the farmer to give you the apples for "free."
I can totally understand and even sympathize with the legitimate policy reasons for this. If we’re going to have a food stamp program, and people can use the benefits to buy bread, soda, fruits, or vegetables from Mexico or California, why shouldn’t they also be able to use them for local apples?
Imagine someone who is poor for no fault of their own — say, a child with poor parents, or someone saddled with medical bills because of a car accident or a severe illness. Should that person be deprived of fresh local apples, or of the experience of apple picking, just because it’s unaffordable?
Yet it’s hard to avoid, too, the feeling that something is not right with the fact that "SNAP Benefits" advertising, which once seemed limited to gritty, urban corner stores, is now everywhere, including the local apple orchard. Earlier this year, the online retailer Amazon.com, which as its recent Whole Foods acquisition shows has serious grocer ambitions, even reportedly, according to NBC News, started offering discounted Prime membership to people on food stamps.
In 2016, the most recent full year for which statistics are available, 44 million Americans were on food stamps, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, cost about $71 billion. That’s down slightly from a peak in 2013 of 47.6 million recipients and a cost of about $80 billion, but it’s still a huge program. For comparison’s sake, in the years 1998 to 2002, there wasn’t a single year in which more than 20 million Americans received food stamps, and there wasn’t a single year in which the program cost more than $21 billion.
Like so many other government welfare programs, it is easier to grow than to shrink. It’s one thing for the food stamp program to balloon in a period of high unemployment or a recession. Politicians who propose trimming the program now that the economy is more strong risk being accused of favoring hunger or starvation, just like those who favor reductions in the growth of Medicaid spending stand accused of callousness toward poor sick people.
Is the expansion of the food stamp program a sign of American greatness — that we’re compassionate enough and wealthy enough to ameliorate hunger for more people? Or is it a sign of lost greatness, that a country that once prized self-reliance has become mired in dependency?
Americans are divided on the point. Maybe there’s some truth in both views.
The new SNAP sign in the apple orchard was a reminder, though, that Bill Clinton’s promise to "end welfare as we know it" remains only partially fulfilled.
The Jewish tradition emphasizes feeding the hungry, but even more highly it prizes helping the poor toward self-sufficiency. The year ahead will be sweeter if fewer Americans need food stamps because more of us have jobs that pay enough for us to feed our families.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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