Wednesday, May 1, 2013


I want to revisit an article I referenced in my “Three problems” post. In that post, I wrote about how the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, believed that food stamps should not be used to buy junk food:

Not only should people know how their tax dollars are being spent, but food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk food at all, the National Center for Public Policy Research said Friday. [snip]

...said David Almasi, the National Center’s executive director. “When it comes to public assistance, I want people buying what they need with my money and not what they desire.”

My conclusion was that under the Lifelong Endowment, this wouldn’t be an issue because:

... everyone can spend their Lifelong Endowment money however they want. If they want to get all their calories from Coke and chocolate bars, that’s their business. That takes care of Almasi’s problem.

The more I thought about it, though, the more uncomfortable I got. Why shouldn’t people be able to spend their food money however they want right now?

I did a little more poking around and discovered that it’s not just the National Center for Public Policy Research that is concerned about how food stamp recipients are spending their food dollars:

Seven journalist and government watchdog organizations have called on the Agriculture Department to release information on how much money retailers that accept food stamps make from the program and what products food stamp dollars are purchasing. [snip]

The organization heads who signed the letter were from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Association of Food Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Association of Health Care Journalists reports that:

This information could show which businesses benefit from the program and also inform public policy debates about obesity and its causes... [snip]

According to “Food Stamps: Follow the Money” a report by the advocacy group EatDrinkPolitics, the data Morisy obtained showed that in one year, “nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars – over four times the SNAP money spent at farmers markets nationwide.”

And the letter sent by the seven organizations states that:

Additionally, the USDA does not disclose which products are purchased with SNAP dollars – or how much is spent on each product, in aggregate – information that is extremely relevant to the public-policy debate about causes and health consequences of obesity, particularly in children. As medical professionals and policy makers call for limits on the use of food stamps to buy “junk food” and soft drinks, data about the type and healthfulness of food purchases is necessary to inform the discussion.

This arrogance on the part of the seven organizations that wrote the letter as well as on the part of the National Center for Public Policy Research is breathtaking. What business is it of theirs - of mine, of anyone’s - where people spend their food money and what food they spend it on? Receiving public assistance does not render someone an idiot, a child, or a pawn of the evil Walmart. Those getting food stamps remain perfectly capable of deciding where and how to spend their food dollars.

And who decides what is and isn’t the right food? I suspect the seven organizations would classify “the right food” as that bought at farmers markets (which will make for interesting eating in Massachusetts in the winter) and the kinds of fresh, organic, sustainably farmed foods that eat up money twice as fast as Walmart’s frozen vegetables (which they probably consider all to the good since poor people eat too much anyhow). The National Center for Public Policy Research, on the other hand, might tend toward some modified version of the draconian “50-pound bags of rice and beans, blocks of cheese and all the powdered milk you can haul away” approach, perhaps supplemented with the very Walmart frozen vegetables so disdained by the seven organizations. The first group is doing this for the food stamp recipients’ own good health; the second for their own good moral fiber. Yet somehow they both end up claiming the right - nay, the obligation - to tell other people what to do and how to live.

I believe that even people on food stamps are smart enough to make their own decisions about what they eat. If they choose badly then they, just like everyone else, will have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Being poor is tough enough; let’s not make it tougher by treating the poor like naughty children who must be forced to eat their vegetables and sent to bed without dessert.


Grim said...

There's a third argument that is neither about moral fiber nor dietary fiber, which is this:

1) The money being spent is not properly theirs, because it is not earned: and while we are willing to fulfill their basic needs, we would prefer to be obligated to give less than more.

2) If they spend our money on things that are not directly related to answering the need for which the money was appropriated from us, we shall have to pay more and not less in order to answer the actual need for which the appropriation was made.


3) It is reasonable for their to be oversight to ensure that this money is spent only for the purpose for which it was appropriated by the legislature. Indeed, it is right and proper to treat all such dollars as we ideally would do with any other government spending -- that is, it should be accounted for very precisely, and any monies being spent other than for the exact purpose for which the funds were appropriated treated as a kind of embezzlement from the public finances.

The poor might be good or bad, eat well or poorly with their own money. If they are spending our money, however, they must be as accountable for it as we would want anyone entrusted with public monies to be.

Grim said...

Well, "for there to be oversight..." but you see the point. This isn't private money, and therefore there is no private liberty at stake. They are being entrusted with public funds for a particular purpose, and therefore they ought to be accountable just as anyone entrusted with public funds ought to be.

Elise said...

I understand that argument but I disagree. In particular:

If they spend our money on things that are not directly related to answering the need for which the money was appropriated from us, we shall have to pay more and not less in order to answer the actual need for which the appropriation was made.

is not so. We can decide how much money people need to buy food and refuse to provide more than that. There is no reason to assume that just because some people choose badly we must ante up more money.

Elise said...

Also, this is not about private liberty. It's about the dignity of the people receiving assistance but it's also about the corrosive effect on all of us of using government power to dictate how other people live their lives.

Grim said...

So let's not. Stop providing food aid entirely, and you'll remove the corrosive effect of using government to influence their lives.

Here you're up against another argument you've made in the past -- one that I've often found persuasive, in fact. You've generally argued that our democracy as currently constituted will not accept American poverty at any level.

Now that argument also depends on their dignity, which is that it is undignified to be permitted to starve while the rest of us eat. So now you're making the argument that it is undignified to be told what you can and can't eat if you eat at public expense. And if that's the case, there's really no reason to think that it isn't undignified to be left to starve because you were allowed to eat at public expense and spent the money on beer.

I'm in the middle between you and Tex on this one. I think it's good that there should be what the Catholic Church calls 'an option for the poor' in public policy. However, there's a huge need to ensure that access to public funds does not become unregulated or relaxed -- a need that will only grow as, with the Boomer retirement coming due. Any public funds expended on care for the poor or the old will need to be watched with an increasingly hawkish eye.

I'm sorry, but that's how I see it. I don't see how we can endorse a vision of dignity that entitles people to spend public monies at unexamined discretion. We just can't afford it.

E Hines said...

There's also an aspect of obligation on the part of the (food stamp) recipient, and that is to do something beyond merely existing to "earn" the handout.

Boaz, for instance, allowed Ruth to glean from his fields for her subsistence--he even went so far as to tell his own harvesters to do a sloppy job of harvesting to ensure that there was something to glean. But Ruth had to do her own gleaning; no one handed her baskets of gleanings.

Even so, had a modern-day Ruth frittered her energies and done an inadequate job, our Judeo-Christian heritage still enjoins us to support that failure and make good the resulting shortfall. Our own failure in this aftermath amounts to a failure of the dignity which Grim cites.

We can't afford such inefficiencies, financially or morally, but neither can our poor. Monies wasted by one (food stamp) recipient would have benefited another potential recipient; that person is cheated as much as the taxpayer funding the original allocation. That's also a violation of dignity.

Of course the recipient must be held accountable for his use of OPM. And if he needs more as a result of his...inefficiencies...then, in my view, he either needs to do actual work for the addendum, or be given the shortfall in kind and not in money--his choice thereby circumscribed.

I'm a whole lot less worried about an inefficient recipient's dignity than I am about the dignity of the ones who are supporting him and the dignity of potential recipients whose aid is in some way circumscribed by that recipient's wastage.

Eric Hines

Elise said...

Grim and Eric,

We could stop providing food aid but I don’t believe that’s politically feasible. And I myself am not entirely comfortable with that idea.

I don’t think I’ve argued that we as a country will not accept poverty. What I’ve argued is that we will not permit people to suffer the more serious consequences of poverty - lack of medical treatment, lack of food, lack of housing, lack of clothing - when it is in our power to protect them from those consequences. My argument does not depend on the dignity of the poor but on the kindness of those who are not poor - which I think is part of Eric’s argument.

I believe there is a difference in Grim’s and my ideas of what the “exact purpose” of food stamps is. My purpose is:

Poor people should have the ability to obtain adequate healthy nourishment.

Grim’s purpose seems to be something more along the lines of:

Poor people should consume adequate healthy nourishment.

I am not arguing that public monies should be spent by the recipient at unexamined discretion. I don’t believe people should be able to spend food stamps on TVs or tobacco or even clothes. What I’m arguing is that a level of examination beyond “use it to buy food” is inappropriate - and arrogant.

Both of you seem to think that if we let the poor spend their food stamps on whatever food they want and they choose poorly, we are then somehow obligated to give them more money or more food. I disagree. I am willing to give the poor the ability to nourish themselves. If they choose not to do so, that is not my problem. If you believe the poor buying soda and candy bars with their food stamps is a sign that they are getting more money than they need to obtain adequate healthy nourishment, then reducing the amount we give them in food stamps is the appropriate response.

Grim raises the idea of public funds for the old. I give Social Security to old people not because I think the old should not be hungry and homeless but because I think the old should have the option of not being hungry and homeless. If Grandpa blows his Social Security check on the ponies, and ends up living in a cardboard box under the overpass and eating his meals at the Salvation Army, that’s his choice. I, through my duly elected government, have done what I can do/am willing to do to give him options. What he does with those options is up to him. I have the same attitude toward food stamps.

(continued in next comment)

Elise said...

There is also the practical side of this. Who decides what constitutes “real food”, what are the items people “need” rather than “desire”? If a food stamp family wants to subsist on rice and beans for a week in order to buy a pizza and a six-pack of Cokes for Super Bowl Sunday, I believe they should be able to do so. If a food stamp family wants to subsist on rice and beans for a week in order to buy their six-year-old a birthday cake and ice cream, I believe they should be able to do so. If a food stamp family wants to buy its food at WalMart rather than at farmers markets and Whole Food, I believe they should be able to do so.

And if that means some food stamp families will choose to subsist on nothing but pizza and Coke and cake and ice cream - and chips and that gloopy cheese dip and Hot Pockets and Cocoa Puffs - then so be it. I believe the damage done by micromanaging food stamp purchases outweighs any benefit it brings.

I understand that this attitude is contrary to how most people think about these issues. It’s certainly contrary to how I thought about them until very recently. But the prism of the Lifelong Endowment has been very powerful for me. It has caused me to think in terms of “how much am I willing to give the less fortunate to give them options” rather than in terms of “what outcome do I want from or for the unfortunate for what I’m willing to give”. I can give people the ability to eat well. I can’t make people eat well and there’s no point in my spending my time and energy (or my government’s time and energy) trying to do so. Making up the shortfall caused by unfortunates who have options and fritter them away is an appropriate job for private charity; it is not an appropriate job for government expenditures.

Grim said...

It's not so much my position that they ought to consume X or Y; it's my position that people who are in charge of spending public monies ought to be accountable for it. Wasting public monies is bad enough; but taking money appropriated for a given purpose and spending it instead on what you'd rather have instead is embezzlement.

It would be as if the town hired a manager to oversee the fund resulting from a special purpose local option sales tax of 1% for road repairs, who then spent the money instead on rebuilding his house. It's not an affront to his dignity to ensure that the public money he is entrusted with is spent on the purpose for which it was taken from the taxpayers.

I think it's fine to provide some level of food aid to the genuinely hungry, but appropriations for that purpose are for that purpose. Social Security is different because it is nominally earned by paying in for a certain period of time (indeed you might say it is more than earned, since you are required to pay into a plan that offers much lower rates of return than the usual market rates). It would be wrong to tell grandpa what to do with that pittance of his money that you give back to him after forty years of taxation. I don't raise the two to compare the cases.

The reason I do raise it is that the challenge of meeting those payments is going to have to come out of the same pool of public money. There are going to be significant challenges resulting from the huge retirement wave just beginning. All public spending is necessarily going to come under more intense pressure from the public to be money well-spent.

Grim said...

As for the prism of the Lifelong Endowment, I can see how under that system we'd be avoiding the problem -- but only at the expense of no longer providing food aid. Otherwise, some endowments would be more equal than others.

Elise said...

I think it's fine to provide some level of food aid to the genuinely hungry, but appropriations for that purpose are for that purpose.

Yes, but the question for me is how do we define "that purpose" and who gets to define it. I say food is food; the people I find arrogant say "food is what I say it is". To say such monies should be well-spent just recasts the question as: What constitutes spending the money well? (And there's also the issue that the more we micromanage how money is spent, the more overhead we incur in enforcing regulations.)

As for Grandpa, some people do get more out of Social Security than they pay in. In that sense, they are getting "my" money so I think my analogy holds in those cases.

Elise said...

As for the Lifelong Endowment, yes, my preference would be to do away with all other income transfers/entitlement programs. That would make the whole system one of "this is how much we're willing to give to the unfortunate" with no issues of who needs or who deserves, and no expectation of outcomes.

I should point out, however, that the person who developed the idea envisioned a system where existing entitlement programs would stay in place but receiving the Lifelong Endowment would mean no one made so little money they could qualify for them. As I explained in my original post, I have concerns about that but understand it might be necessary to insure passage.

Beyond that, I wasn't just saying that under the Lifelong Endowment we could avoid arguing over what is and isn't food. I was saying that looking at entitlement issues with the idea of the Lifelong Endowment as an alternative has shifted my thinking about existing entitlement programs.

E Hines said...

Elise, it seems you're lumping those who need help making a better life for themselves in with those who can't or won't, and so must, or are happy to, live off of others.

I'm perfectly willing to give more to those who need help and are making progress in benefiting from that help. Up to a point, repeatedly, so long as I can believe they're trying. It's entirely appropriate that these be left to their own choices--it's the only way they have any hope of learning and so of bettering themselves--or of recovering from the run of bad luck or mistaken judgment that put them in these straits.

But if those who need--or want--help and are going to do so in perpetuity, whether from laziness or incapacity, then you bet they lose their opportunity to decide for themselves--hence my demand that additional help be in kind and that they work for it. They've forfeited their right to decide for themselves in the one case, and they've demonstrated their inability to decide for themselves in the other. One thing I won't do, though, is let them starve when I'm in a position to do otherwise.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Yes, but the question for me is how do we define "that purpose" and who gets to define it. I say food is food; the people I find arrogant say "food is what I say it is".

Well, I certainly don't wish to be arrogant. On the other hand, I don't take the problem to be one of definitions. I'm happy to stipulate that beer is food. Beer is quite nutritious, and good beer even moreso -- Guinness really is good for you. It's also sixteen dollars a gallon, while milk is three.

Elise said...


I’m not lumping together “those who need help making a better life for themselves in with those who can't or won't, and so must, or are happy to, live off of others.” I’m saying I cannot tell the two groups apart, at least not at the macro level of a government aid program. So what I’m doing is giving everyone the benefit of the doubt for the first iteration: I assume all the poor want to do the best they can for themselves and are able to make decisions for themselves and so all of them get food stamps and the ability to buy whatever food they want with it. If they make bad decisions about what kind of food to buy then they eat junk.

This is the system we have now. The use of food stamps includes shopping at WalMart and buying junk food (that’s what the groups I cited are so upset about) and as far as I’ve heard, we haven’t had a rash of reports of people on food stamps starving to death.

If there are poor people who are truly so incompetent that they spend all their food stamp money the day they get it and they and their families starve the rest of the month, then those individuals need to be declared incompetent and a guardian appointed to look out for them - just like we do for rich people who can’t look after themselves.

As for additional help for those who want to better their situation, I believe the appropriate venue for that is private charity. To me, government can give everyone a floor - or safety net, if you prefer. Private charity can give those who want it a staircase.

Elise said...

I have no problem stipulating that beer is nutritious. I remember reading somewhere that the Egyptians fed their pyramid-building slaves beer - possibly apocryphal, possibly not. And I’m torn on whether beer and wine should be buyable with food stamps. I tend toward saying “No” (which I believe is how it works now) simply because alcohol is alcohol and allowing people to buy alcohol with food stamps seems like allowing people to buy lottery tickets with food stamps.

I’m not sure where you’re going in comparing the price of Guinness with the price of milk but I assume it has to do with what you take the problem to be.

E Hines said...

To me, government can give everyone a floor - or safety net, if you prefer. Private charity can give those who want it a staircase.

Plainly we disagree. In my view, this is backwards.

Which is part of why I disagree with the whole concept of a lifelong endowment provided by government.

Eric Hines

Elise said...

Plainly we disagree. In my view, this is backwards.

That's what makes horse-racing - and politics. :+)

E Hines said...

Long as we do both my way....


Eric Hines

Elise said...

My sentiments exactly, Eric. :+)

Elise said...

Which is part of why I disagree with the whole concept of a lifelong endowment provided by government.

Took a while for this to register but ...

One of the many good things about the Lifelong Endowment is that it isn't provided by the government. In fact, one of the big pluses is that it cuts the government out of the loop.

E Hines said...

I like the name "Lifelong Endowment" because it removes the word "redistribution" and the word "entitlement". It emphasizes the idea that we are all in this together. It removes the stigma of government handouts. And yet wealth redistribution is exactly what it is: It assesses sixteen percent of all personal income and retained corporate earnings on a monthly basis, and distributes the full proceeds in equal shares to each adult citizen.... Entitlement is inherent in the guaranteed nature of the redistribution.

Moreover, Lifelong Endowment (LE), addresses the complex of issues above. It taxes all income monthly at 16%.... and ...set by an independent board with a mandate similar to that of the Fed. Thus, the LE can only be a government mandated enterprise. Note, for instance, that taxing authority and the Fed are both GEs (in Jackson's lexicon).

The LE doesn't at all cut government out of the loop--government is the necessary driver of it. And by relieving folks of their responsibility to be the first to see to their own welfare, it destroys their morality.

Finally, as Jackson intimates (but I didn't see anything in his comment that explicitly addressed this) folks dependent on this GE (yes, yes, banks--but these are operating under government mandate) will be more naturally and thus better organized, have more political expertise, and have obtained greater legislative, because the marginal value of political activity is greater for them, leading to increasing numbers voting for this wealth redistribution at the direct expense both of those voting against it and the latter's pocketbooks.

Which is where we are now. Which is an argument for why the "stigma of charity" isn't such a bad thing.

Eric Hines

Elise said...

All quite true, Eric, but I stand by my contention that:

I believe the ship has sailed as far as ever getting back to a system where people in the United States don't expect money to be taken from some of us to and given to others of us


Thinking about this approach does require that we accept the inevitability of some kind of redistribution and turn our attention to minimizing its ill effects. Anyone who is still attempting to eliminate redistribution itself will not find this approach helpful

So if you believe you can eliminate redistribution totally, go for it. I, however, think that's impossible and so would settle for a form of redistribution that results in money flowing directly from people to people without the government either skimming from it or deciding who gets it and who doesn't it.

E Hines said...

I guess this is another area in which we disagree. I'm not ready to throw in the towel on that.

We haven't lost until we give up. And there's that bit in our Declaration of Independence, important enough to have been pointed out twice: whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right [and duty in the repetition of this point] of the People to alter or to abolish it....

Eric Hines