Last week's Time (still on newsstands) makes the latest attempt to debunk the idea that there are lots of soldiers on food stamps, one of John McCain's--and now Al Gore's--staple complaints. It's just a "cheap applause line," Time's Mark Thompson argues. There are only 6,300 soldiers on stamps, he notes, down from 11,900 in 1995.
But wait a minute: Three paragraphs later Thompson reports that a change ordered by Secretary of Defense William Cohen in the treatment of housing subsidies "could double the number of soldiers on food stamps." Gee, wouldn't that put the figure at 12,600, up from 1995. Thompson's piece debunks itself halfway through.
Anyway, McCain's point is that there should be no soldiers on food stamps, not as a matter of economics so much as of respect: Food stamps are a form of welfare, and a country that respects its soldiers doesn't have 6,300--or 4,000, or 12,000--of them on the dole. Does the fact that a fix for this problem is incredibly cheap (McCain's plan would cost "about $6 million annually") make it less or more of the "national disgrace" McCain says it is?
Thompson does hint at one reason such an easily fixable problem might have been allowed to persist for so long: When it comes time to lobby for higher military pay across the board, the Pentagon doesn't mind having a few photogenic Army-families-on-food-stamps around. Another reason may be that acknowledging McCain's objection means admitting there is something shameful and welfare-like about food stamps, at a time when the administration is foolishly trying to repackage and promote the stamps as a benign "work support." (See this earlier item.)