The Values That Guide Us

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, also known as “food stamps,” comes up for renewal every five years as part of the federal farm bill. Normally, its passage is a routine matter that engenders little debate. This year, however, things worked out differently. Different versions of the bill were recently brought up for a vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, both versions tagged with signs of the Right’s fierce austerity campaign. The bill approved by the Senate would cut food stamps by $4 billion over the next ten years. The bill considered by the House proposed slashing funding for SNAP by $20.5 billion over a ten-year period. The House bill was defeated this past Thursday (June 19th), but the reason it went down was because a cluster of Republicans, convinced the cuts did not go far enough, voted against it. The ultimate fate of the farm bill is not yet knowable, but one thing is clear: families that depend on SNAP would suffer greatly from such severe cuts.

Considered merely in pragmatic terms, the cuts would be unwise. In the long-run they would expand expenditures on health care, impede the learning abilities of the children affected, and result in a less qualified work force of diminished  productive capacity. But decisions about spending on food stamps should not be viewed merely in economic terms. They should be seen as well in moral terms, as a reflection of who we are as a people. From this angle, these cuts represent a triumph of cruelty over compassion, of meanness over human empathy, of privileged individualism over national solidarity. They reveal the hard truth that many members of Congress have little concern for ordinary folk trapped by a ruthless economy that allows the rich to feast on the entrails of the poor. Since many of those to be victimized are African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color, the cuts also bring to light a subtle racism disguised by hypocritical injunctions about hard work and personal responsibility.

For a country that prides itself on its democratic heritage, the extent of hunger and poverty in our midst is as shocking as it is shameful. Our Declaration of Independence states that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but those in need are not even offered a rope to help them emerge from poverty. Fifty million Americans live in a state of persistent food insecurity, among them children, elders, single moms, veterans, the long-term unemployed, and folks working at low-wage jobs. For these people, the question of how they are going to feed themselves and their kids is a gut-wrenching issue they must face anew each day. Up to now many have been meeting the challenge with the aid of food stamps, but this support is fragile, and if Congress guts the program, that support will be gone.

Conservatives who endorse cuts to food stamps try to give their position moral authority by quoting the Bible, depicting Jesus as a fiscal hawk obsessed with imposing austerity on the backs of the poor. However, as conscientious Christians have pointed out, such biblical quotes, cited out of context, distort the meaning of the texts. The Jesus of the Gospels clearly proclaims a message of universal love, compassion, generosity, and social justice. The Buddha, too, along with Confucius and the Hebrew Prophets, speaks about love and care as the proper way for people to relate to one another. These spiritual teachers hold that all human beings are entitled to live with dignity, which implies they must be provided with the means to realize their fullest positive potentials.

This premise makes inescapable demands on us as personal moral agents. It implies that in our deliberations about how to act, we should be guided, not by the maxim to look out only for ourselves, but by the decrees of love and compassion and justice. This means we must extend our sphere of concern as far as it can reach, so that ultimately it embraces everyone. We must regard each person as a center of infinite value, to be cherished and protected from harm.

It is this mind-set that generates empathy, the ability to share the concerns of others and to feel their needs as our own. To acquire this capacity, I believe, we have to learn to regard everyone from an interior point of view, dissolving the wall that separates us from others. By doing so we will feel others as if there were no significant difference between our own subjective being and theirs. From this universal perspective we then must act—thoughtfully and effectively—to redeem others from the sting of poverty, from oppression and injustice, from humiliation and loss of self-respect.

The pursuit of this ethical ideal, however, cannot be left solely to individual conscience and acts of private charity. Nor can it be placed entirely in the hands of humanitarian organizations, which despite their good intentions usually operate with overstretched budgets. This is where government enters the picture. In a democratic state, government is the expression of our common will, embodying on a collective scale our dispositions as moral agents. Government can accept this role positively or negatively, but it cannot escape the moral burden of its status. Its policies, institutions, and laws inevitably have an ethical content, whether by helping or by harming.

In a vigorous democratic society, the actions of government mirror the values we cherish most deeply, translating our hopes and concerns into specific courses of action. Under such conditions, government becomes the channel through which we express human solidarity. Despite the hysteria over “Big Government,” in its social functions government is by no means a predator that must be shrunk so small it can be drowned in a bathtub. Its proper role is to be an instrument for maintaining the common good: for alleviating poverty, guaranteeing human rights, and protecting the most vulnerable. It is this role that our public servants must boldly step forward and reclaim. They must show by public policy that as a nation we care for everyone in our midst, that we refuse to let anyone sink into the pit of abject poverty

In a truly ethical society, the primary guideline to the formulation of public policy should be the question: “How would we want to be treated if we were in the tattered shoes of the other?” If we were hungry, sick, and poor, would we really believe that we must each look after ourselves alone? Would we argue that we must narrowly pursue our own personal good? Or would we think, rather, that we’re responsible for each other and should be manifesting this sense of responsibility through just laws and policies?

The answer to this question does not presuppose a specific religious framework but merely an acceptance of the thesis that a moral point of view should serve as a guideline to social policy. A secular society committed to the moral mandate would adopt the same conclusion as one guided by a religious consciousness: that we are each responsible for one another and thus must protect one another. A true democracy would recognize that the good of all depends on the good of each, that we cannot allow some to flourish and turn our backs on those who fall short.

This conviction entails certain practical lines of action. It means that when our resources are sufficient to provide for the well-being of all—as they certainly would be if more stringent restrictions on accumulations of private wealth were adopted—we are morally obliged to provide for all. We cannot permit a powerful few to accumulate unprecedented wealth while others go hungry and cold or find themselves burdened by oppressive debt. Perfect equality may be an impossible ideal, but we should not tolerate extremes of inequality. Rigorous scientific research shows that more equal societies are healthier, happier, and more peaceful than unequal ones. Such societies are better for everyone, the rich as well as the poor.

At present, SNAP protects 47 million Americans against a fall into the abyss of food insecurity; it keeps them safe from the gruesome demons of hunger, malnutrition, and hunger-related illness. Certainly, SNAP is not a final answer to the problem of hunger in America. The final answer is a concerted effort to eliminate poverty by making sure that everyone in this land who is able to work can obtain meaningful jobs that pay living wages. But until we take up that campaign in earnest, SNAP will have to serve as a means to provide everyone with a place at the table. It will have to be our nation’s bulwark against the pangs of hunger and destitution. Despite the assault that SNAP has been facing in Congress, we must defend it and improve it from those who seek to undermine it. And on this basis we must then push forward with our efforts to eliminate hunger in America and more widely around the world.

Comments are closed.