The farm bill is being held up in Congress by a controversy over food stamps. Some legislators think that this welfare program has gotten out of hand.
Before we delve into the details, let us arrive at some sort of definition for welfare. It would seem to me that welfare is receiving a government benefit, in cash or in kind, for which we have not paid.
Food stamps are welfare because the recipients have not paid for them. They are a government handout, pure and simple.
But the other half of the farm bill includes welfare for farmers. In the case of agriculture, we don’t call this welfare. “Safety net” sounds better, especially for people who abhor welfare.
Even the sugar beet growers get welfare. With an influx of Mexican sugar, the government will buy up sugar to support the price for domestic producers. Ordinarily, sugar beet welfare comes indirectly, with the government using import restrictions so that consumers can subsidize beet growers with higher prices in the store.
Then we have Medicare, one of the biggest welfare programs in history. Our premiums pay only one-third of the cost of medical services. If we have a hip or knee replacement to the tune of $40,000, somebody else will pay $25,000 for it. That’s welfare.
And we are not one bit embarrassed about it. Recent polls show that 64 percent of the folks over 65 want to keep Medicare just as it is, even if it is contributing significantly to the federal deficit.
Medicaid is a welfare program that pays the cost of nursing home care for the destitute. Over half of the patients in North Dakota nursing homes are on Medicaid at an annual cost to taxpayers of around $75,000.
And some of them became eligible by making themselves poor by transferring their worldly goods to relatives. Many family members of those getting this welfare in nursing homes often point at other welfare programs as disgusting and indefensible.
Investors get indirect welfare through a special tax break on capital gains. That’s what billionaire Warren Buffet was talking about when he said his secretary paid more taxes than he did.
Churchgoers get welfare when the city provides places of worship with tax-free police and fire protection.
And whenever a storm rips through the countryside, we petition the federal government for a handout – even before the hail has melted - to relieve local taxpayers of paying for the damages.
The State of North Dakota has been on government welfare of one kind or another for years, receiving $1.60 from the federal government for every dollar we send to Washington. According to the PEW research people, federal grants account for more than one-third of state budgets.
Those Wall Street manipulators who let greed trample their morals were saved by a big welfare program called a bailout. Government help made it possible for them to get their bonuses – a windfall from government action.
We might as well throw in those folks who took out huge home mortgages without the income to pay for them, leaving the government to devise costly schemes to save them from their own bad judgment.
Even this newspaper gets a little welfare through a special mail classification that provides cheap postage for second, third and fourth class mail.
Now that we admit that many of us are getting benefits for which we are not paying, I hope we can be more objective about the issue. Maybe Medicare beneficiaries shouldn’t knock safety nets for farmers or nursing home patients shouldn’t be knocking food stamps.
Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota’s 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.