We welcome back Janet Ney, former Associate Executive Director of CACLV.  Janet currently serves as the Coordinator of Advocacy and Outreach for the Second Harvest Food Bank  of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania.

My sixth grade teacher used to accuse (yes, accuse) us of being rugged individualists when we failed to do what was best for the community.  She did not tolerate those who went their own way with no regard for others.

There is a theme in American history that, unlike my teacher, lauds rugged individualism – the entrepreneurial spirit, pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps, never depending on anyone else, especially government.  And, there is truth to the statement that the entrepreneurial spirit has contributed to the success of this nation.

How does rugged individualism manifest itself in today’s society? Too often, it’s characterized by “I’ve got mine; you get yours” – as if everybody can. In today’s low- wage labor market, when there are jobs, breadwinners work hard for wages that don’t pay enough for families to get by, much less prosper.

There is another strain in our history. It’s called neighborliness. It’s what led to whole communities coming together for barn raisings. It’s what we do when we know that there’s been a death in the family or someone is sick.  We care about each other.

During the Great Depression, Congress passed the first Farm Bill, which included a program, later called Food Stamps, which provided temporary help when families were struggling to put food on the table. The Food Stamp Program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is helping millions of people nationwide (46.5 million people, nationally, in May 2012) who have suffered job loss and income reductions because of the current economic climate.

There are those, however, who would cut the program because of alleged, but substantially unproven, fraud, waste, and abuse. There’s a hint of the worst kind of rugged individualism – if you’re poor, it’s your fault.  Where’s your entrepreneurial spirit? You shouldn’t need a government “handout” unless you’re lazy or up to no good.

Here are a few SNAP facts. Nearly all of the families on SNAP include either children or people with disabilities. The average time that recipients spend on the program is nine months. In Pennsylvania, the program’s track record for fraud is one-tenth of one percent. At the federal level, SNAP is recognized as having one of the lowest fraud levels of any program. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “Over 98 percent of those receiving SNAP benefits are eligible and payment accuracy was 96.19 percent in 2010 –an historic high.” SNAP is efficient and effective. A nation that cares makes it so.

I think my sixth grade teacher would approve.