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The Sad Tale of Juan Diego Castro

How the federal government turned a giver into a taker.

9:30 AM, Feb 23, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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This may be the saddest passage you read about American culture this week. In a story from the New York Times headlined, "Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance," we learn that the government has been using your tax dollars to market the giving away of your tax dollars in the form of food stamps to more and more people of higher and higher incomes.

As with any social program, there are many people on it who are indeed needy, but the article makes clear that the revival of food stamp popularity has more to do with state and local officials who are glad to curry favor with local constituents using federal dollars.

Since they're not paying for it, local officials and a network of aid organizations happily aid the federal government in recruiting more food-stamp recipients, regardless of how much they actually need the assistance. Meet Juan Diego Castro, who demonstrates how the system works:

Juan Diego Castro, 24, is a college graduate and Americorps volunteer whose immigrant parents warned him “not to be a burden on this country.” He has a monthly stipend of about $2,500 and initially thought food stamps should go to needier people, like the tenants he organizes. “My concern was if I’m taking food stamps and I have a job, is it morally correct?” he said.

But federal law eases eligibility for Americorps members, and a food bank worker urged him and fellow volunteers to apply, arguing that there was enough aid to go around and that use would demonstrate continuing need. “That meeting definitely turned us around,” Mr. Castro said.

You are already paying a 24-year-old, able-bodied, college graduate a $2,500* monthly stipend to organize tenants as part of Americorps (a service that should be donor-supported, but Constitutional objections aside...). You are paying more than $5,000 toward his education, as a reward for his "volunteer" work with Americorps. You are subsidizing his student loan forgiveness, as a condition of his volunteer work in this government program. You are now  paying for his food, even though he himself thinks the money should probably go to those less fortunate than himself.

And, most appallingly, you are paying for the son of immigrants to learn to be a burden to his country to "demonstrate continuing need," just so the federal spigot can stay on full blast.

In this young man's quest to give to a community, to empower others, our federal leviathan and its legions of suckerfish taught him that he should be the one taking, for himself.

It's hard to imagine a greater, sadder perversion of the system.

* Former Americorps workers note that the stipend for Americorps is often lower than the $2,500 noted in the article.

Update: The push-back I'm getting from Americorps folks on this is interesting. It is devoted entirely to defending Americorps and Americorps workers, completely ignoring Castro's story, which indicates there may be some rot in the system. To be clear, I have a philosophical issue with the Americorps program, but it doesn't have much to do with the issue at hand. I do not have an issue with community service or those who serve (In fact, I support them, actively!)—only that it shouldn't be paid for by the federal government. And, I should add that plenty of people in Americorps do good work, even if I disagree with the federal nature of the program, so I changed the subhead to reflect that it's not meant as a blanket critique of all Americorps folks and their intentions.

What Americorps devotees should be asking themselves, instead of alleging that I'm somehow anti-service, is whether they think it's proper for an Americorps worker sent into a community to help the less fortunate to take from the resources meant for the less fortunate, when even he himself expresses misgivings about whether he needs them. They should also wonder whether a program built to serve the less-fortunate is truly serving them when it seems clear there's some sort of system in place for putting even volunteers who don't particularly need assistance on the dole.

There is a safety net for people who need it, but the resources for it are not unlimited. Creating more people to partake of it, some of whom clearly don't absolutely need it, does not help those who really need it. You know, the ones service programs are supposed to serve.

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