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Californian contributing columnist Ric Llewellyn.

Food stamps -- or SNAP benefits -- have been in the news a lot recently. The reason is that benefits have been reduced.

Most stories cover the statistics of poverty and point out that tens of thousands of people in Kern County receive food stamps. What makes the story worse is that children and the elderly make up the majority of food stamp beneficiaries.

While it is a crisis for some and should be troubling to everyone else, no one is actually asking, "Why?"

Not, "Why are we cutting benefits," but, "Why are so many depending on SNAP?"

Food stamp benefits were increased in 2009 as part of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as "The Stimulus." But food stamp benefits are neither an investment nor a tool for economic recovery.

Although it is just a small portion of the whole stimulus package, SNAP benefits have clearly done nothing to help the economy. Just read the stories on food stamp benefits and the level of poverty in our country, state and county.

More people are in poverty and more people are on food stamps than ever before!

So why are there so many people on food stamps? This is the crucial question that must be answered.

Some people are indigent and are unable to provide for themselves. Perhaps they are affected by a physical disability or mental illness. These people don't have any other local support. It is simply a matter of survival.

Some people act like parasites and are unwilling to provide for themselves. They are satisfied with the provision the rest of the community makes for them through the government. Their ambition focuses on maximizing the "freebies."

Between those two extremes lie many different circumstances for which SNAP has become the balm that assuages the symptoms of the real problem.

What is the real problem? Lack of education, broken homes, drug addiction? Unemployment or under-employment?

Is it that spirits are broken by the lack of opportunity? Have people grown weary of the struggle? Has ambition been eroded by fear of failure?

Do people lack the confidence to leave Kern County or go back to school? Do they lack the commitment to stick with a job and build a career? Is it a lack of courage to endure the arduous struggle for self-reliance?

It is complicated and it is no wonder that our distant and dispassionate federal government has failed miserably with this challenge. All the efforts of the State of California have only left us languishing in a lamentable status quo.

But that's not the end of it all. The news has also spotlighted organizations that work hard to serve the needy in our community. Theirs seems to be the role of crisis management, though. They cannot be expected to provide long-term relief to those of Kern County who are in need.

Or can they? They may be in a unique position to change the course that has left us floundering with no solutions in sight. These are groups of people who already care and they are willing to volunteer. And they personally touch the needy every day.

Some organizations right here in Bakersfield are working to build the individual's self-reliance but more needs to be done. The concepts these groups utilize are considered supplemental to public social services. They need to be more broadly employed.

Maybe the approach needs to be characterized by more frankness and urgency. And while the idea may be uncomfortable, perhaps we should demand more participation from beneficiaries.

I understand that these groups serve with "no strings attached." Maybe we should abandon the notion that taking the opportunity to urge self-reliance is some sort of grievous "condition" for receiving help.

We have already seen that personal attention is just what many recipients of public assistance need to break the bonds of poverty. Tough questions should be asked of recipients not as a condition for benefits but with the desire to provide greater, more effective help.

The vast majority of people who are neither indigent nor parasites need more than just a few days' worth of food. They need help dealing with the circumstances that have them depending on government provision and private crisis intervention.

They need help with their own self-confidence. They need to learn to aspire. They need to develop marketable skills and learn how to present themselves to employers.

Then they need to get some affirmation with even the smallest success. It is, after all, a step in the right direction.

So while the Ds and the Rs squabble over $36 a month for poor families' SNAP benefits, we can do more now that will make their quarrels moot.

-- Ric Llewellyn is a community columnist whose work appears in The Californian's Local section every third Saturday. Email him at llewellyn.californian@ These are Llewellyn's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.