How Food Stamp Restrictions Can Fuel Bigger Government

A young woman, teenager with long blond hair lolls on a black leather sofa, watching television and eating crisps and coke here.

The glamorous welfare life.

Missouri is considering a law to ban people using food stamps to purchase steak and seafood, as well as candy, soda, and other junk food.  I don’t think this is a bad idea, at least when it comes to the junk food.  It certainly makes sense to me that the government has a right to decide what tax-payers’ money can be spent on, and it’s not fair to immediately retort with accusations about hatred of poor people.  It’s no surprise that Rick Brattin, the representative who authored the bill, has mixed motives; in the same breath as claiming that he is trying to restore the program to its original purpose of providing essential supplemental nutrition, he adds: “When I can’t afford [filet mignon and crab legs] on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”  Is the problem that welfare recipients have no right to buy luxuries with money that was given to them for essentials?  Or is the problem that they don’t deserve them?  Regardless, he has a point.  The government has an obligation to make sure all its citizens have enough healthy food, but it doesn’t have an obligation to make sure they have candy and chips.

After this distinction, though, it gets complicated.  So, no lobster.  Fair enough.  What about in the summer, when lobster is as cheap as chicken?  What about salmon, which is extremely good for you?  Maybe if we only let them buy frozen salmon, which is cheaper?  No chips, fair enough.  What about baked chips?  Not so nutritious, but they’ll curb your temptation to buy the greasy regular ones.  What about crackers?  What about whole wheat crackers?  Well, maybe only if they’re store brand?  What about frozen convenience foods?  After all, they’re expensive and unhealthy.  But what if you have picky kids, and your husband works all day and then comes home and you go to work, and he cooks supper, but he’s so tired he’d really like to just throw in a frozen pizza?  Well, maybe if you can provide a doctor’s note showing that you are sufficiently tired to deserve frozen pizza.  Or maybe one frozen pizza a week, but no more.  What about brand names?  They’re not any healthier than store brands, so that’s out.  Well, what about goat cheese or gouda?  They’re not really any more nutritious than plain old, cheap American cheese.  American cheese it is.

See how crazy this is getting?  And here’s the real problem: if you’re really going to enforce a policy of only nutritious, essential purchases, you’re going to have assign an army of bureaucrats to work out all the details.  And worst of all, you are going to have to authorize a lot more government intrusion.  Do you really want the government to be controlling your grocery shopping habits this closely?  Or, if you think it’s only fair for someone receiving free groceries to have severe restrictions: do you really want to set a precedent for the government to attach all kinds of strings to legitimate assistance?

Now look, if you want to stop welfare fraud, okay.  Require a photo ID to be shown with food stamps purchases.  Tighten up the regulations and investigate suspicious recipients.  But realize that you’re fighting a straw man: it appears that less than 1% of welfare money is abused.  And ask yourself this question: if you authorize the government to decide whether people on welfare have to buy Wheat Thins or Square Shaped Wheat Crackers, what are they going to take over next?

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4 thoughts on “How Food Stamp Restrictions Can Fuel Bigger Government

  1. I completely agree – as a general principle, if the government is paying for your food (or healthcare, or anything, really) the government has a right to decide how their money is spent. Period. But there’s some logistical difficulties that you have to think about.

    I often point out to people that when you’re in a situation where you need food stamps, there are economies of time and energy as well as money. If you’re working a labor-intensive job and come home to small, demanding children, you’re not going to have the energy to prepare nutritious, well-rounded meals every night; frozen pizza and chicken nuggets are your friend.

    The best, most efficient use of government money for SNAP is exactly the way it is now – beneficiaries get their monthly calculated rate, virtually no questions asked. Aside from some analytical anti-fraud procedures, trying to administer a complex mix of “allowed” and “not allowed” foods would just lead to more waste.

    The only option I could think of would be to redesign SNAP to be more like WIC – you get warrants for specific allowable foods. That would solve the problem of people buying junk food with SNAP but it would put everyone on basically a restricted diet. Plus, you would STILL have waste because people would take whatever food they are entitled to because it’s “free” and then it would go bad.

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    • That’s very well-put, about “economies of time and energy.” I feel like using EBT for times like that actually helps me be thriftier and healthier, too. For instance, it’s wonderful being able to buy things like cut up apples and bagged lettuce, because it makes it much more likely that I and the kids will snack on them, and keeps them from going to waste. And if I’m exhausted and don’t feel like cooking, using my EBT to buy frozen pizza is still healthier and cheaper than going to McDonald’s, which is what I would do otherwise!

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