Is cutting food stamp rolls a good thing?

Roughly 47 million Americans are getting hit by the food stamp cuts that went into effect today, and the food stamp (SNAP) program could fall even more in coming months. The House and the Senate are haggling (surprise) over two versions of the farm bill — in the Senate version, about $4.5 billion is cut from the SNAP program over 10 years (the program costs about $80 billion to run); in the House GOP version, $39 billion is cut, mostly by tightened restrictions. The Farm Bill, which is up for renewal about every five years and can best be classified as a fairly major piece of legislation for America, has pretty close direct ties to SNAP.

The overriding issue with the food stamp discussion is the idea that America is becoming an ‘entitlement economy,’ which is something Newt Gingrich claimed back in a January 2012 GOP Presidential primary debate in South Carolina.

Factcheck.org did a post on the veracity of his claims; in short, participation in SNAP is at a historically high level, but you can’t assign the ‘blame’ (if that’s the word to use) to one authority over the other. It began a drastic rise during Bush’s presidency, and has also spiked sharply under Obama. Of those with the income level to qualify, only 54 percent of people signed up in 2002; by 2009, that was 72 percent. A lot of that can be attributed to changes made at the state level, both in terms of ease of use (replacing stamps with EBT cards) and reducing the amount of information you need to register for food stamp benefits. This has led to an increase in fraud as well (also see here).

This is a good rundown of some of the arguments and myths surrounding the food stamp program. In general, it does have a history of integrity in terms of how the program is managed, but regardless of how you slice it, it’s a challenging situation both of terms of (a) actually living on them and (b) the public perception of the program, regardless of the rooting in facts.

I’ve always wondered about imbalances in these discussions. Let’s start with the health side. Could we figure out a way to make food stamps/EBT cards only useful for healthier products? In Michigan, low-income shoppers can actually get more fresh produce. Even though this headline claims Nikki Haley’s plan in South Carolina is the ‘wrong way to fight obesity’ (not arguing that), it’s still a good jumping-off point. Congress should ‘cut the fat’ from food stamps. Good, healthy food tends to be expensive — yes, ’tis true — but you can go to a farmers’ market in most states with $25 and get enough food to base five-six nights of meals off of. I’ve done that. Healthy incentives could be the key here.

Here’s the other thing I’ve never understood, minus just simply answering “capitalism…” and walking away. If a company like McDonald’s is making $27 billion in 2012 — and one has to assume a decent portion of that is coming from low-income communities — shouldn’t they be giving back more, or providing some type of road map to healthier eating in those communities? They donate money and give back, to be sure — but what if they established markets based on vegetables in these communities, and offered cooking classes? What if they subsidized some of the cost? If you’re profiting from those areas, shouldn’t you be invested in keeping those areas healthy? They’re not going to abandon McDonald’s altogether. This might be faulty logic, but I’ve always felt those large food companies should work on low-income neighborhood food awareness and strategy more.

I’m about to turn 33. I didn’t learn to cook until I was 29. Before that, I mostly ate bar food (fried), fast food (greasy), or the occasional decent meal at someone else’s house. I was pretty much broke (although classified as middle class, in all likelihood) during most of that time. It’s not actually as expensive as one thinks to eat well. It does require some knowledge and work, yes — but (you know, pending what happens with the Farm Bill discussed above), a lot of core ingredients of interest and value can be had for not that much money. As with a lot of things in America, I kinda think the issue is less about throwing money at a problem or debating how much money to remove, but more about how to educate and train the people being affected to make better choices — and show them how it’s not that hard, even with 2-3 kids. This video is maybe a smidge offensive (the ‘Buff Dudes’ t-shirt and all), but it makes some valid points:

The future of food stamps is unclear, yes, but the path shouldn’t be: focus more on education and knowledge for those affected, and less on partisan rancor and exact dollar amounts. We can fix this if we approach it rationally and logically (never strong points for humans on a large decision-making scale).

Oh, and because we discussed the Farm Bill above and this might be my favorite YouTube of all-time (it’s up there), I’ll end by linking this. It does take a farmer; they still play an incredibly important role in our society, as advanced as it has become:

Ted Bauer


  1. Great piece. I’m of the view that “food stamps” are primarily welfare for agribusiness. They keep low income shoppers buying high-markup/low quality products that contain very little actual nutrients and a lot of value add. That money could go much further buying real food, but nobody wants to go there. Easier just to keep milking productive wage earners/taxpayers. While importing more and more people on the dole to hold out their milk pails…and vote for the politicians who come up with these solutions.

    When I worked with various food co-ops during my many years in alternative agriculture policy and research, most had a basic “shopping list” of 50-100 food items for which they charged wholesale prices for retail amounts. In other words, while they might buy 500 lbs of pinto beans wholesale for 20 cents a pound, they could mark that up to 50 cents per pound for retail shoppers…but chose not to. The theory was that people on very low food budgets–or simply looking to economize while eating high quality foods–wouldn’t be paying markup for the items on the “basic shopping list.”

    Why can’t food programs do this? I detest it when I go to Trader Joe’s (I buy uncured bacon there to avoid nitrates) and in the checkout line are hipsters using EBT to buy organic quince paste, artisan arugula, etc. That’s not needy, that’s privileged. And yeah, I *do* get to pass judgment, because *I* am paying the bill. My agreement to support the poor does not equal kids in $120 American Apparel jeans eating like they’re at Mommy’s condo in Sedona.

    When I was a youngster, surplus food like cheese, eggs, dairy, meat, and butter were distributed via welfare programs to people needing food. There were so many complaints! Including that poor people were entitled to be bone-ass lazy about cooking even though the really poor ones had nothing else to do all day. Oh, and also, they just didn’t like that nasty dried egg. Jeez, the times I had it (a relative on the dole once brought us a bunch because she didn’t like it), it was wonderful. I made casseroles, soups, baked with it…. She complained that the plain cans were “humiliating,” and she wanted Velveeta and Spam. I showed her that she was in fact getting just that. No, she had to have the packaging. I was a teenager and told her off, saying that my parents were paying for her food, and worked a lot harder than she did (she watched soap operas all day, and smoked).

    How many “poor” people now have cable TV and smart phones and even central heating/air conditioning, things I can’t afford and don’t expect, and I’m a reasonably successful professional. Then they complain they don’t have time to cook…but somehow they always have time for Judge Judy, their Stories, and endless yapping on the phone.

    People who have 2 or 3 kids they can’t afford should have their welfare slashed, in my view, until they agree to develop and practice life skills, or lose their kids. I don’t think it’s up to me to pay for their pathological family lives or failure to be adults. Just because they can get pregnant/knock someone up and squeeze out the kid–I don’t care.

    I used to be a knee jerk liberal about all this, but over time I see that these programs are doing nothing but making poverty more intractable as more and more people expect more and more stuff for simply existing. It’s a new form of slavery or plantation, and the chains are low expectations/high entitlement/no social or economic or legal accountability. Today I think cutting food programs is a very good idea. ALL of us working families have to live on less. There is no reason “the poor” should be exempt from learning to economize just as we do, or change habits and expectations. It’s been three decades since I bought any packaged food. I have learned to shop in bulk and find time to cook even though my workweeks run 60-75 hours, and I’m on call 24/7. It’s a matter of having a little gumption, and enough pride to fix things yourself rather than demanding handouts.

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