Ruh roh.  Looks like the Northwest states—particularly Washington—are seeing a substantial boost in the number of people signed up for food stamps.  In fact, comparing 2006 figures with year-end data for 2007, Washington’s jump in food stamp utilization was the largest in the country: an increase of more than 25 percent in a single year!!

chehalis flood - credit waman69Typically, rising food stamp enrollment is a clear sign of a slowing economy.  But Washington’s worst-in-nation food stamp surge likely had another cause:  the flooding in west-central Washington late last fall that put many folks in shelters, and still more in dire financial straits. 

So the New York Times calls Washington’s food stamp increase a “temporary increase in response to [a] natural disaster.” Fair enough. 

Still, I think it’s a mistake to downplay the significance of Washington’s food stamp bounce.  First off:  some of that increase probably is due to a faltering economy.  Food stamp enrollment is up nationwide, as well as in neighboring states, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think that Washington’s economy stumbled as well.

And second:  natural disasters aren’t necessarily all that “natural” anymore.  In some ways, they may be an inherent symptom of the global economy, rather than an unpredictable outside force. Climate change has increased weather variability; and we’ve done precious little to insulate ordinary folks from the risk of extreme weather.   The economic effects of natural disasters, while unpredictable, are every bit as real as the effects of a slowing economy.  Perhaps moreso, since they can hit so suddenly and so intensely, particularly for folks with thin financial cushions.  So, in a way, there’s no reason to downplay natural disasters as “outside” the economy.  It’s become an artificial distinction; we have to start treating the economic costs of natural disasters as an expected—even inevitable—consequence of the economic choices we’ve made.

Which raises another point.  Too often, public policy debates center on the cost of stopping climate change.  But this sort of news turns the tables:  the costs of not stopping climate change—i.e., of letting climate-warming gases continue to flood the atmosphere—will likely pose a much greater risk to wealth and wellbeing than the cost of setting some responsible limits.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user waman69 under a Creative Commons license