Last week, the Senate accepted by unanimous consent an amendment to the pending farm bill that would ban convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (a.k.a. food stamps). Introduced by Louisiana Republican David Vitter, the amendment has received condemnation from the left and at least one round of applause on the right.

My initial reaction was “A few undesirables will lose a taxpayer-financed handout—so what?” But the more I thought about the amendment, the less I cared for it. For starters, the amendment appears to be politically motivated. Vote against it and a Senator can expect to see a negative campaign add from his or her next opponent. That’s probably why the amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent instead of being formally voted on in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

More importantly, what does it accomplish? In terms of budgetary savings, it probably won’t save taxpayers much money. In addition to doing little to curb the size of government, it does nothing to rein in the federal government’s scope. I believe that it is not a proper role of the federal government to fund and/or administer anti-poverty programs. At most, such concerns should be the domain of state and local governments. Ideally, poverty relief would be completely handled by charities and other private organizations. The Vitter amendment, however, is just another example of the Beltway’s one-size-fits-all mentality. 

So should an individual convicted of a horrible crime who has paid his or her dues to society be denied assistance? Some would say yes, others would say no. The left has a case when they argue that denying assistance to an ex-criminal could have the unintended consequence of incentivizing further criminal activity. But the right also has a case that, hey, that’s our hard-earned money being taken from the government and being handed over to people who made awful choices.

The diversity of opinion points to a fundamental problem with the government trying to act like a charity: the country gets stuck with whatever the politicians conjure up. Contrary to what youngsters are led to believe in school, our elected officials are not altruistic, enlightened beings. In reality, federal efforts to alleviate poverty will always be undermined by the self-serving nature of politics. And even when approached with the noblest of intentions, bureaucratic sclerosis and the undue influence of special interests will ultimately undermine a program’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Personally, I would have no problem donating to a charity that helps struggling ex-cons who need to put food on the family table. Perhaps other people wouldn’t feel as comfortable and would instead direct their donations toward charities that only serve, say, hungry women and children who were the victims of violent crime. That’s the beauty of choice, which stands in stark contrast to the ugly, coercive alternative of the political system.

Should Murderers and Rapists Get Food Stamps? (Cato Institute) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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