Mona Charen

Oregon Gov. Theodore Kulongoski called a gaggle of his closest friends to a photo op Tuesday that few could pass up. As part of his "Food Stamp Challenge" week, the governor is attempting to live on a food budget of $21 per week, which is about the average benefit for an Oregon food stamp recipient, according to the governor's press release.

Associated Press photos showed the governor pushing a shopping cart and ostentatiously relinquishing a noodle cup and two bananas at the checkout counter when his total topped $21. "Could you feed yourself for $3 a day?" demanded headline in the next morning's Oregonian.

Let us stipulate that in a country as wealthy as ours, the idea that anyone should go hungry is unacceptable.

But is that what's really happening? Why is it that whenever you listen to a Democrat you feel that the year is 1966? They seem to live in a time warp in which no progress has been made on race relations, poverty, childhood malnutrition, and on and on.

Let's start with some numbers. If you go the state of Oregon's website and calculate your eligibility for food stamps, you will find that a family of four with no income (and 70 percent of food stamp recipients do not work at all) is entitled to $518 monthly or about $32 weekly for each person. This is a very rough estimate because all sorts of factors are taken into account in calculating eligibility, including number of dependents, housing costs, expenses and other income. Perhaps the governor's office is correct that the

average food stamp allotment in the state is $21. But that means some get more and some less. Eligibility is based on need.

Now even $32 seems like a very small amount of money per person, but that is only a small part of the largesse provided by the U.S. government, which spent $522 billion on low-income assistance programs in 2002. It doesn't count hot breakfasts and lunches at school (which push high-calorie, high-fat diets on kids). It doesn't count the Earned Income Tax Credit by which the working poor get cash back from the federal government ($41.4 billion went to 22.2 million recipients last year, according to the Los Angeles Times). It doesn't include housing subsidies, Medicaid or the Supplemental Security Income program, which can free up funds for food. Nor does it count the WIC program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The WIC program provides highly caloric packages of juice, cereal, eggs and other food to pregnant women, nursing mothers and children up to the age of 4. WIC also provides baby formula, thus discouraging the poor from breast-feeding their babies.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist, political analyst and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help .
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