Food Stamp Reform (Oh, SNAP!)

One of the dangers we presently face is that, with now-President Trump doing or saying something outrageous every couple of days, we’re likely to lose track of the national dialogue on policy.  To resist that trend, let’s discuss something other than what’s happening right now but instead might happen soon.

The perennial Republican talking point on food stamps (actually SNAP these days) is that there’s widespread abuse.  To be fair, this is what their constituents want; vast numbers of calls and letters show up in their offices every single day complaining about this person who was buying junk food at a convenience store, that person who must weigh eight hundred pounds, the other person who is clearly on drugs.  And many members of Congress believe that their job is to do what their constituents tell them to do.  (Some have a more… corporate… constituency, but that’s another topic.)

This anecdotal feedback makes food stamps a safe target for speechifying, and it’s likewise safe for the Democrats to respond in its defense.  After all, we’re talking about feeding the poor; it’s a tiny part of the budget, and your old granny needs milk with her tea.  It’s cruel to suggest putting your old grandmother out in the street and making her pick dumpsters.  (Never mind that she lives in Palm Beach with her fifth husband and that rat-poodle with the diamond collar — it’s the principle, right?)

What we end up with is endless talking points, vilification of those receiving assistance, and very little real action.  Which is not what Congress is supposed to be doing.

So let’s settle the debate ourselves, shall we?

I think it might be better for Republicans to object in a different way, to be frank.  Because they do have a potentially valid point to make; there’s a fair amount of obvious inefficiency, and it’s bad for morale to watch that happen on the taxpayer dime.  (Lest you scoff at morale, remember that this is a factor as important as need in standard economic equations.  Economies only function because we believe they should.  It’s a ‘Dumbo’s magic feather’ situation.)

Likewise, while the Democrats have a good counter-argument, they miss some of the most important talking points.  Less emotional arguments might say the cost of reform would be vast in comparison to the benefit; indeed, it would be vast in comparison to the entire budget item.

Let’s explore the ‘food stamps at convenience store’ example:  Sometimes, when you’re on assistance, you live a hundred yards from the gas station but three miles from the grocery store and you can’t drive and you’ve got this bad leg, which is the reason you’re not working at the mill in the first place.  It’s called a disability.  So the convenience store just makes sense.

The price tag for directly monitoring food stamp use to make sure it doesn’t get abused is between five and thirty times the cost of the SNAP program. Government employees don’t work for minimum wage, and it’s more than just one person tracking sales. Someone then has to go into the home and follow up, there’s interviews, there’s counseling.

Now, let’s say we have a person who loses their right to food assistance because of abuse. Let’s also say that person is mentally ill and can’t work — a major behavioral disorder, for example. What then? Should they starve?  Should we house them in a mental hospital — at ten times the price?

And these sorts of arguments hold for most cases of reported abuse.  The most common abuse, according to the Cato Institute, is the illicit sale of SNAP goods or bank cards for cash, which accounts for from one to six percent of the total.  (One Maine case involved SNAP purchases of bottled water, which was instantly dumped and the bottles returned for the five cent deposit.  You can’t make this stuff up.)  They also estimate that caseworkers erroneously grant funds to those who don’t need them, usually through oversight but sometimes in order to get around a cumbersome system in an apparent emergency.  The combined price tag from both causes ranges from $1.5 to $9 billion, depending on the year and whose numbers you use.

No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of money.

And yet, it’s important to remember that, from an economic standpoint, it all gets spent where intended (except with water dumping).  The money goes to the local grocery (or convenience) store and gets spent on food, and it helps employ cashiers and baggers and managers, and truckers, and pickers and growers, and the folks in the processing plants… all of whom pay income tax.  And, incidentally, a lot of poor people get nutritious food.  Speaking of which, this all serves as a highly indirect subsidy for unprocessed food; milk and eggs and fresh vegetables and meats are always permitted under SNAP rules, while lots of junk food isn’t.  During an economic downturn, the program expands, directly countering the recession in a small way.  Both Keynes and Friedman would approve.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying we should countenance fraud.  It’s just not right, and there’s nothing more to be said about it than that.

But preventing it is an internal matter, and I’m sure there’s a criminal justice solution that discourages it.  Besides, there’s apparently a database tool that Utah developed called eFind that should be free for use to all states, and will help with tracking.  So that’s all well and good, and this shouldn’t become a matter for Congress or the president — except we know it will; it’s just a matter of time, and not much time at that.

So why does this come up so frequently?

At the bottom, it’s a disagreement in fundamental philosophy.  There’s this persistent idea among social conservatives that hard work builds character, and that a perfectly healthy and able person ought to be able to get a job and provide, contributing to society and suchlike.

The thing is, though, there’s nothing intrinsically virtuous about work for wage. Yeah, we all do it, but if half of us stopped (especially the lawyers) the country could still feed itself. Actually, if nineteen out of twenty stopped working, we could still feed, clothe, house, and heat (or A/C). There’d be no internet, though, and no content, so let’s not try it.  More to the point, there’d be no network of support for creative art, no market for works of literature, no reason for people to write compelling poetry or amazing music.  Civilization is more than mere survival.

My point stands, though; we don’t particularly need these people in the workforce, and Arbeit does not Macht Frei. So what should we do about water dumping, or food stamps at the gas station?

One suggestion is that we should arrange it so that enough food for everyone is freely available at communal dining halls. We’ll make it nutritious and tasty because that’s cheap. We provide bus service in urban areas and limited delivery in rural.  And we all go, even those of us with jobs, because if it’s not good enough for everyone it’s not good enough. And then we stop worrying about it.

It might also help to start teaching people useful knowledge in school again. How to cook, for instance, and why a diet of Doritos and Coke will make your gums bleed and soften your bones no matter what vitamins you take. Heck, we could even provide the classes right at our neighborhood free-food hall — Stew 101, Salad 102, and Dishwashing 103 — and make them available for adults as well as schoolkids.

But what we should not do is make this a toy of political rhetoric, a way for one party to score points off the other.  When the debate comes up, we should already be prepared with a well-reasoned position to stave off the rhetoric.  And, before Congress even starts to consider it, we should write them and convey our beliefs.

Arbeit does not Macht Frei, dammit.

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