Missing The Point On Food Stamps

In our old (read: post-collegiate) age, we’ve become much less easily riled. Back when we were an impressionable young college sophomore, we could get angered dozens of times while reading just one section of the paper. These days, most stories just make us depressed. It’s been a good long time since we’ve read something that really set our blood boiling, but a recent post about food stamps on Megan McArdle’s blog over at The Atlantic did just that. (Props to MP: Chicago for bringing it to our attention.) McArdle is, we think, mainly trying to make the point that food stamps are not a good way to stimulate the economy. We have never pretended to be an economist, so we will reserve judgment as to whether or not that happens to be true, but, frankly, whether or not food stamps are a valid economic stimulus is irrelevant because that’s not what they’re meant to be. Food stamps are meant for people who don’t make enough money to buy sufficient food. Period. They are not for people who, as McArdle contends in a later post, “take money out of their food budgets to buy something else.” They’re for people who don’t have enough money to have a food budget to begin with.

In our personal favorite part of the original post, McArdle argues against food stamps on the grounds that “the poor don’t need more food. Obesity is a problem for the poor in America; except for people who are too screwed up to get food stamps (because they don’t have an address), food insufficiency is not.” SERIOUSLY???? Might that be because there’s, oh, we don’t know, higher-calorie processed foods are cheaper because they’re full of ingredients subsidized by our agricultural system?

There’s an incredibly icky subtext in the posts and their comments that low-income people are in their financial circumstances purely because they make bad choices (at one point, McArdle suggests giving “the poor” money instead of food stamps because “even if they spend it all on drugs, it will hardly be much worse than spending it all on increasing their already astronomical obesity rates.” You know those poors! All they want are drugs and fatty foods!

We are willing to bet that McArdle has never been to a supermarket in a low-income neighborhood. We have, and we’ll tell you a few things. First of all, basic foods (milk, eggs, etc.) tend to be more expensive than they should ever be. Secondly, the produce is, generally, incredibly subpar: rotting fruits and veggies, all for astronomical prices. We don’t generally eat processed foods and we’d go for the mac and cheese in that situation. Plenty of the commenters seem to think that because they have certain grocery-shopping options, clearly low-income folks do as well. Many low-income people are, to a large extent, bound to their location, especially in non-urban areas. We agree that Trader Joe’s has some really great deals. That’s not very helpful if you don’t live near one. Sure, you can save a lot of money by doing your grocery shopping in bulk at Costco. Guess what? If you don’t have a car and you can’t pay for a few months worth of groceries up front, that’s not feasible.

Of course it’s problematic that most people who qualify for food stamps have to use them at grocery stores with sub-par options. The solution to that problem, however, is definitely not to eliminate food stamps. Instead, we need to think about how to make healthy foods realistic options for low-income consumers.

Why Not Food Stamps? [Asymmetrical Information]
Protect Them From Themselves [Asymmetrical Information]

[Photo: From the Wilderness]

Missing The Point On Food Stamps