On October 16 the New York Times published an article, “Unlikely Allies in Food Stamp Debate” which focused on how left leaning non-profit hunger groups and Big Food interests aligned in their opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to bar food stamp recipients from purchasing sugar soft drinks with food stamps. The article gave a credible history of how the hunger community and corporate food interests have found common interest since the inception of the food stamp program during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. With more than 1 in 8 Americans now receiving food stamps, their coalition is a telling one. The hunger groups advocate that food stamps provide much needed food and the corporations reap about $4 billion per year in government payments from food stamp recipients.
The article touched on a wide range of arguments – that barring soft drink purchases infringed on individual rights, that it would ‘perpetuate the myth’ that the poor make unhealthy choices, and that despite a correlation between soft drink consumption and obesity and a correlation that women and boys on food stamps are more obese than their counterparts, that correlation does not prove causality.
Like so many arguments raged today in the media and over the air waves, the real issues are not addressed in the article. They are too politically incorrect for the New York Times. Simply put, if we (the citizens of the US) give something to someone (people receiving food stamps) can we restrict how they use it? The answer is, yes, and the truth is, we do it all the time.
After all, why do we give people food stamps? Because we don’t trust the poor enough to give them money. Besides food stamps for food, we have Section 8 subsidies for housing, Medicaid for health care, and fuel assistance to stay warm in winter. We have a history of offering specific assistance, but we don’t like to give cold cash. The most enduring cash program, AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children) was wiped out in 1996 and replaced with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), riddled with work requirements, time limitations and other restrictions.
I am against these patchwork programs for two reasons. First, they keep poor people poor by never giving them quite enough resources to rise above their plight or enough incentive to actually change. Second, they create a huge bloat of middle-class government level positions. With Federal employees making on average more than double their private sector counterparts, and the State of Maryland having the highest household income in the nation, the real beneficiaries of our social programs are not the poor but the people who administer them.
Then again, I am compelled to support these programs because they define, however feebly, the baseline against which society says ‘you cannot be trusted to take care of yourself and your family, and we will intervene’. This sounds stringent, but it is a fundamental measure of any civilized society – how well do we care for those who cannot care for themselves.
I fear we come up pretty short on that measure. As long as our definition of the social safety net is the hodgepodge of poorly coordinated programs, we will muddle through. But until we come to the point where we will give cash to people who need it and allow them to spend it as they like (which will be like, never), I am in sync with Mayor Bloomberg – sugar soda is bad for us and should be exempted from any list of fundamental needs.