Posted by: bkivey | 27 June 2012

Eating on the People’s Dime, Part II

In the previous post I wrote about the use of food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase ‘junk food’ like candy, soda, and chips. Most people who buy their own food look askance at this practice, and it’s frustrating for clerks in grocery and convenience stores to have to ring up these items for people who clearly should be using the other people’s money they’ve been provided to purchase staples. The stated purpose of the SNAP is to provide access to basic foodstuffs so people don’t go hungry. One would have to be a right bastard indeed to deny the less capable and less fortunate access to food, but by the same token, if a person is going to accept public funds to feed themselves, they should be willing to forgo some of the autonomy that comes with using their own money.

As obesity becomes more of an issue in the Western world, some people are calling for increased restrictions on the use of food stamps. The thinking is that taxpayer-funded food programs shouldn’t contribute to taxpayer-funded medical treatment for obesity-related health issues. One of the source documents I cited in the previous post purports to address this concern, but actually spends 11 pages explaining why food stamp restrictions aren’t a good idea.

Implications Of Restricting The Use Of Food Stamp Benefits is a USDA study released on 1 March 2007 that looks at the challenges of imposing dietary and nutritional restrictions on food stamp purchases. The very first sentences in the report indicates the focus of the study:

By most standards, almost all American diets are in need of improvement. Given interest in using Federal
nutrition assistance programs to promote healthy choices, some suggest that food stamp recipients should
be prohibited from using their benefits to buy foods with limited nutritional value.

It’s likely that most people, myself included, aren’t really concerned with how people choose to eat, as long as they buy the food with their own money. If a person is making a living and chooses to blow their money on cake and ice cream, I really don’t care. Those choices don’t affect me in the least. And because I pay for all my own medical expense, any health problems they may develop won’t affect me, either. It’s none of my business.

What is my business, and the business of anyone paying Federal taxes, is how taxpayer-provided food dollars are spent. Some people believe that Federal assistance should come with no strings attached, but the laws of economics don’t allow for consequence-free choices.

The study summary lists four findings:

No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.

I’m pretty sure that by ‘clear standards’, USDA means ‘standards that will withstand a legal challenge’. Given the depth and breadth of the poverty industry, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable stance to take. The report does offer some options for determining standards, but notes that there are significant shortcomings with each approach. My thinking is: you’ve got to start somewhere.

Implementation of food restrictions would increase program complexity and costs.

Yes, it would. One has to evaluate the cost/benefit ratio of the increased cost and complexity in light of the use of food stamps to purchase foods of questionable value and the attendant health impacts, as well as the funding parties perception of how their money is being used.  The most current figures for SNAP puts the cost at over $75 billion annually. That’s a lot of money spent with very few controls.

The study makes much of the burden placed on employees as food stamp enforcers. I think the report greatly overstates this impact. To my knowledge, every state issues food stamps on a debit card. While it’s true that not every store uses a scanner to read the UPC’s on product, it’s also true that the great majority do. The objection to restricting food stamp purchases based on product codes seems a case of the perfect as enemy of the good. Again, a partial control is better than no control.

Restrictions may be ineffective in changing the purchases of food stamp participants

The objection here is that SNAP recipients would just substitute cash for food stamps to buy junk food. So?  That’s sort of the whole idea, that SNAP participants use their own money (or at least not SNAP money) for those purchases.

No evidence exists that food stamp participation contributes to poor diet quality or obesity.

This is a pure red herring. The point isn’t that participation in the program leads to obesity per se, but that public money shouldn’t be used to make that contribution.

The report raises valid questions, and provides much food for thought, so to speak, but the tone is of an agency looking for ways not to change the status quo in a a way that restricts participant’s food choices. It’s an unfortunate side effect of social programs that they have negative incentives. Increasing participation is seen as success. The SNAP homepage splashes the fact that they serve 46 million people monthly right at the top of the page, as if that’s something to be proud of. It’s not. It’s embarrassing. Any society where 1 out of 7 people needs public assistance just to eat has some real problems.

As a nation, we’re broke. Public agencies, and the people they serve, are going to have to come to terms with the fact that human wants are infinite, and resources aren’t. I’m all for providing food assistance to those in tough straits, I’ve been there, but there should be some incentive to get off of public programs as soon as may be, and restricting food stamp purchases should be part of that incentive.

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