Food Stamps: Example of a Lot That’s Wrong With Government Entitlements

Posted on October 17, 2013


Government handouts of any kind should enable basic emergency survival only, nothing more.

When we wrote about “Mountain Dew Mouth,” we touched briefly on one advocate’s efforts to ban the use of food stamps to buy sodas.  I agree, but not because of obesity or dental ramifications; what concerns me is that food stamps – known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – are intended to buy nutrition for those who cannot afford it, and sodas are not nutrition, by any stretch of the imagination.

Well, as it turns out, Representative Phil Roe (R-TN) introduced a bill in the House last month which would place many more restrictions on what foods can be bought with SNAP benefits.  While I’d much rather see Congress permanently resolve their unforgivable budget debacle, this is a bill I can morally support, and might help the budget mess in the long run, too.

Some decry this effort as a nanny-state stunt, and say that people should be trusted to make their own choices on the use of their benefits.  I disagree.  I’m no fan of the nanny-state, as I have previously criticized efforts to limit sodas, sugar, salt and the like;  I do think people should be allowed to make their own choices… if those choices are made on their own time and their own dime.  But when you’re spending my tax dollars for your personal benefit, well… there’s a reason for the saying “beggars can’t be choosers.”

But that’s exactly what goes on with SNAP.  Your taxpayer dollars can buy:

… all food products, not including: beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco; any nonfood items; vitamins and medicines; foods that will be eaten in the store; or hot foods.


Your tax dollars at work.

So… yeah, that includes sodas, Porterhouse steaks and lobster, as one Michigan fraudster demonstrated to the outrage of many (he got jail time, not for buying the items, but for reselling them at half price).  I’d like to think that people can be trusted to use their government benefits honestly and wisely, but you know what?  Too many of them just can’t or don’t.

Need an example other than the steak-and-lobster guy?   Witness last weekend’s debacle when food stamp users’ Electronic Benefits Transfer cards (EBT) suffered a technical glitch, and balances could not be determined.  In Louisiana, Wal-Mart decided to accept the cards anyway (bad move!).  EBT users cleared the store shelves; the scene was described as “worse than Black Friday”; police were called in to maintain order.  When the cards came back online and showed the true available balance, shoppers simply walked away from their overflowing carts, leaving a huge mess for employees to clean up.  One woman had over $700 worth of groceries in her cart and less than 50 cents on her card.  As State Senator Robert Adley commented, what happened was no different than writing a bad check:  “Honesty is the best policy, and I don’t know what else to say. It appears Wal-Mart put people on an honor system, and it looks like people abused it.”  Granted,  this was not true of all beneficiaries, but it was certainly enough to create a madhouse scene for which Wal-Mart will be footing the bill… and for which honest beneficiaries now fear that all EBT users are “being judged.”

Well, yeah.  It’s human nature to notice the crazy spectacle right in front of us, rather than the quiet, compliant folks in the background.  Especially when the spectacle involves my tax dollars paying for your lobster that I can’t afford for myself, or when hooligans use a technical glitch in their taxpayer-funded benefit to rob a store blind.

But Roe’s bill is a way to greatly reduce such abuses, and get a lot more bang for our tax bucks all in one fell swoop:  SNAP should more closely resemble the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutritional program, which sets strict limits on exactly what that money will buy.  The focus is all on nutritional content; it is nearly impossible to buy junk food or extravagant items using WIC.  If SNAP is supposed to be about nutrition, why shouldn’t it be the same?

As Congress narrowly dodges the debt-ceiling bullet (yet again, with more confrontation looming in January), we are faced, as a nation, with an unsustainable level of entitlement spending (among a lot of other unsustainable spending).  I believe in social safety nets.  I think we have an obligation to make sure the basic needs of our most vulnerable are met.  But I also think that none of us who depend on entitlements should expect anything beyond the bare basics.  We all have an obligation to do our best to take care of ourselves.  SNAP… indeed, any government entitlement…  should be about emergency support, about meeting a minimal basic need for extreme cases and short-term needs only.  It should not be about making everyone’s standard of living the same.  If you have a desperate need, our safety nets should be there for you.  If you want a higher standard of living, you need to earn it yourself.