May 24, 2013

Sen David Vitter's proposed changes to food stamp program would force some felons to go hungry: Jarvis DeBerry

5-24-2013 Washington DC:

Given his professed Christianity, it's a shock that U.S. Sen. David Vitter seems so unfamiliar with the concept of mercy. Given his admission to a "very serious sin" -- doing something he shouldn't have with somebody other than Mrs. David Vitter -- you'd think maybe he'd be a champion of forgiveness. But no. Vitter is one of those "to hell with you" Christians who someway, somehow seems to have missed the whole of the New Testament.

Last week the senator attached an amendment to a farm bill that will disqualify even rehabilitated felons from ever receiving federal food assistance. Maybe it's because Vitter's amendment singles out convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles that Senate Democrats were too pusillanimous to raise an objection. Shame on them for not doing so, but more shame still on the senator channeling Dives.

It's been almost six years since Vitter's phone number was found on a list kept by the operator of a Washington brothel. Six years, and what you just read is my first time wagging a finger about it. Other columnists have laughed, mocked, ridiculed and jeered, but you saw none of that here.

Sure, given the high standards Vitter had demanded from others, moral consistency would have compelled him to step down from office. But I've come to expect something less than morality or consistency from politicians, especially those trumpeting their own.

While it was never within my ability to forgive the senator for the scandal, I did have the discretion as a columnist to let it go. Why hound him for something that even in 2007, according to him, was way in his past? However, holding a person's past against him forever is exactly what Vitter aims to do with this legislation. By making people with certain criminal pasts permanently ineligible for food assistance, he'd make starvation a more likely consequence even for the commission of a long-ago crime.

Many have scoffed at author Michelle Alexander's premise that our legal justice system is functioning as a new Jim Crow, but, as the law professor pointed out in a November lecture at Dillard University, denying food aid to people who have the absolute hardest time finding work helps pave their path back to prison.

No, Vitter's bill would not just apply to black folks, but given the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system, it's no mystery which demographic is most likely to go hungry if such spitefulness becomes law. But that really is secondary to the argument -- which group will suffer the most. In a land with such abundance, we shouldn't be able to stomach anybody -- and I do mean anybody -- going without food.

Some law-and-order types seem ignorant of the ways their policies might foment lawlessness and disorder. If a man can't get a job because he has a record, and he can't get food because he has a record, how do we expect him to stay out of jail?

Does dispensing free food to those with records keep them out of prison? It might not. Nor will increasing job opportunities for felons ward off all recidivism. But even if more humane policies aren't 100 percent effective, that's still not an argument for letting anybody go hungry.

I get it. Stinginess is popular. The thought of bad people getting free food makes your blood boil. You work hard, pay your taxes. You've never been to jail. Why should some miscreant eat on your dime?

One answer is that that said miscreant will probably be eating on your quarter, dollar or $100 bill if his food is served up in prison. Giving him food stamps is cheaper than giving him a jail cell. Besides that, there is something fundamentally un-American with letting people starve. We embrace meritocracy and fairness. But both should be tempered with mercy.

And mercy ought to be familiar to those who profess a religion that's based wholly on that concept: freedom for prisoners, shelter and clothing for the least of these and restoration for prodigal sons, that is, those who squandered all they were given. Mercy ought to be particularly prized by a politician whose reelection required voters to show him some.

When we pounce on politicians for their sexual misdeeds, we give them the wrong idea of what matters. The very serious sin that filled Vitter with shame isn't nearly as significant as the anti-poor legislation that fills him with pride. ..Opinion.. of Jarvis DeBerry can be reached at

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