SNAP Judgements

... it stands to reason that no one should be allowed to purchase salmon on sale at $4.99 per pound with their SNAP benefit.
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Earlier last month news hit that a Republican state legislator in Missouri had introduced a bill that would limit SNAP (food stamp) recipients from using their benefits to purchase “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak”. This brought about a raft of smart commentary, notably from Emily Badger at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Before getting to that, I’d just like to stop and underline how arbitrary, how blunt, just how brain dead the language of this bill is. It prohibits just six types of items. Four of which are singled out ostensibly because of their poor nutritional quality and two of which because they are ostensibly luxury foods. The actual rationales are never given, nor are any useful definitions included other than for the term “energy drink”.

There seems to be no underlying principle, just an animating attitude. Is it about ensuring that tax dollars are used to serve the nutritional needs of the poor and addressing the diabesity epidemic? Or is to ensure that the poor can’t have nice things? It reads as if it was a reaction to witnessing a single shopping cart of goodies paid for with an EBT card which infuriated Missouri lawmaker Rick Brattin.

Statements by Brattin lead one to believe that there is no coherent policy objective other than knee jerk moralizing – an example of the all too common id based approach to law making (see also: mandatory GMO labeling):

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards,” he said. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

OK. Then why cookies and chips? And why rule out a reasonable snack like Sun Chips or oatmeal raisin cookies, but allow Cheetos and Ding Dongs? Why rule out fresh tilapia and canned tuna, but allow caviar and foie gras? Why rule out a tri-tip or hanger steak but allow center cut pork loin?

OK, we get it. You saw someone buy filet mignon with an EBT card. How do you know that it wasn’t a splurge after a virtuous month of lentils, frozen vegetables and canned tomatoes? How do you know that they hadn’t saved up enough of their benefits to celebrate landing a new job or to reward their teenager making honor roll?

The fact of the matter is, SNAP benefits are so paltry that splurges like lobster, filet mignon and king crab legs don’t pencil out if you are actually relying on that money.

A meal of lobster or crab legs for two comes out to about $30 – just for the seafood (side dishes cost extra). The average two person SNAP household receives $247 a month or $8.23 a day ($4.11 per person per day – less than many people’s daily budget for coffee – Starbuck’s grande frappacino = $4.40). So if we splurge on crab legs for two, we now have $217 to cover food for 29.6 days or $7.33 per day ($30 = $1 a day). Forget a single splurge, lets really abuse the system and have crab legs one day and lobster the next. Now we have just $3.19 person per day and getting through the rest of the month is going to be really threading the needle. Spending more than 10% of your monthly budget on a single entree for a single meal out of 90 meals in a month isn’t luxury, so much as a way to end up hungry at the end of the month.

The point is, is that if people are really just shoveling away their benefits on luxury items, the problem isn’t that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase luxury items. THE PROBLEM is that maybe those folks slipped through the application process but don’t really need SNAP benefits. (Or you’ve been in line behind people who work miracles with dried beans and frozen vegetables the rest of the month.) The issue here is not the SNAP package, it’s eligibility. Limiting the choices of those who need the benefit doesn’t help deal with that. It just makes life harder for those that need the benefits.

Somebody once was seen buying this with an EBT card, now...
Somebody once was seen buying this with an EBT card, now…
... nobody should be able to buy this with an EBT card.
… nobody should be able to buy this with an EBT card.
Somebody was caught buying crab legs (not on sale like these) with an EBT card, now ...
Somebody was caught buying crab legs (not on sale like these) with an EBT card, now …
... it stands to reason that no one should be allowed to purchase salmon on sale at $4.99 per pound with their SNAP benefit.
… it stands to reason that no one should be allowed to purchase salmon on sale at $4.99 per pound with their SNAP benefit.

Of course, some folks will then move to suggest that maybe we should move to tighten up the application and screening process.

We could do that, but bear in mind that it is likely to cost more money rather than saving taxpayers money. The amount of abuse is so low, and the amount of money that those who game the system gain access to are so small, that the administrative cost of greater policing will likely outstrip the amounts money saved by denying people benefits.

In Florida, the experiment with drug testing welfare recipients cost a more to administer than saved by denying applicants who failed. In the bigger picture, when we compare the US to the rest of the world, we see that the country that was founded by Puritans and possessed by faith based free market fundamentalism spends as much or more on social spending as our counterparts in the developed world while getting far less back in terms of results.

Americans would seem to prefer to concoct elaborate, inefficient and ineffective social net as long as they can be reasonably assured that no one is getting anything that they don’t deserve. We could get more for less, like other countries, but that would entail tolerating a higher degree of free riderdom and that seems to high a price to pay for effective government. We’d also have to stop giving the private sector a cut of social spending. Give us an expensive Rube Goldberg contraption that lets sit comfortably on our high horse rather than a streamlined government that just gets the job done and fixes problems – it might cost more, but at least we get to feel superior.

Emily Badger makes a great point about this in the Washington Post showing how this moralizing is primarily aimed at the poor:

We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don’t drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don’t require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they’re pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don’t require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don’t use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.

I’d add to that, that if we do want to invest money in seeing that taxpayer money isn’t used erroneously to subsidize filet mignon and crab legs, that enforcement budget would be better spent at the IRS investigating bullshit business dinner expenses. Just as everyone has had an eyeroll moment at the check out line when we see some one at the supermarket check out line pay for questionable choices with an EBT card, many of us have also seen people save receipts at restaurants for meals that were tenuously related to business (at best). There is surely a lot more expensive surf and turf fraudulently written off as a business expense than is purchased – legally – with SNAP benefits.

Policy analyst Scott Klinger:

Imagine that the tab for dinner and drinks for 10 executives comes to $1,600. Current tax law allows companies to deduct half of the cost of business meals — in this case, $800. With a corporate tax rate of 35 percent, each dollar of deductions yields 35 cents of tax savings — so that $800 deduction saves $280 in taxes. This means one dinner for 10 people provides more public food assistance than the $279 an average household receives in food stamps for the whole month.

(H/T Emily Badger)

Meanwhile, on turning from the luxury issue to the nutrition issue, Marion Nestle points us to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who points out that on balance SNAP recipients eat as well (this is America: as poorly) as everyone else and greater education is where we should be turning rather than trying to micromanage their choices.

[recipients] may buy a little bit more soda, but they might buy less salty snacks than we do. They might purchase a little more of this than we do, than non-SNAP families, but we purchase a lot more sugary stuff than they do in other categories, so it’s kind of a wash…It’s also extremely difficult to set up a system that distinguishes between various items. You set that system up, what’s going to happen is that people won’t be able to buy apple juice, they won’t be able to buy orange juice… Our thinking is that a better way to approach this is to educate people so they make the right choice, they make the healthy choice.

All well and good, but as Nestle points out, the money just isn’t there.

  • SNAP benefits =  $70 billion in 2014, for about 46 million participants.
  • Therefore, the average SNAP participant received about $1504 per year in SNAP benefits.
  • The USDA provides Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grants for SNAP (see section 241)= $375 million.
  • Therefore, the average SNAP participant received about $8 per year in nutrition education.
  • The USDA also provides double-value awards ($31 million) to help SNAP participants buy fruits and vegetables.
  • This adds an average of 66 cents per year for each SNAP participant to make healthy choices.

Thought for today:  How much nutrition education does $8.66 buy?

This is why regulation of the SNAP package is a better approach

I fully agree that regulating the SNAP package is a better approach (I’ve written about that at length here.). We exclude sodas, snacks and sweets, while providing MORE money for fruits and vegetables, but let’s underline and extend a few things.

1. The kind of education that actually changes habits and purchasing decisions is expensive, time consuming and not exactly the kind of thing that the the federal government is good at (they are good at collecting taxes and cutting checks). The money for that education is in the form of block grants to state governments which aren’t particularly better positioned to do nutrition or cooking education either.

2. People already know that they should be eating more fruits and vegetables. $375 million to admonish people to eat better. $31 million to help them pay for eating better. It’s a indicative of our Puritan beginnings of our that we spend over 10 times as much on inefficient admonishments to eat better than we what we provide to actually purchase more fruits and vegetables. Why spend all that money to teach people that they should be buying fresh produce that they can’t afford? We should just go ahead and help them buy the produce.

3. $375 million? $31 million? Really? It seems to me a good rule of thumb for federal legislators would be: IF ITS NOT WORTH A BILLION DOLLARS, IT’S NOT WORTH DOING.
I’m sure you can come up with examples of worthy and effective programs funded at under a billion dollars that honestly don’t need any more funding, but as a rule of thumb, it just leads to waste, bureaucracy and unnecessary complication. The federal budget is $3.9 trillion dollars. That’s 3,900 billions. It’s 3.9 million millions. Just in terms of billion dollar chunks, nearly 4000 is a lot to keep track of. If you are a cabinet secretary, being handed $31 million to spend isn’t an opportunity to do some good, it’s a distraction from doing the core of your job well.

I’d love to see TANF, SNAP, the EITC and the minimum wage all traded in for a universal basic income so that we can put all the unhelpful moralizing and attempts to micromanage the lives of the poor behind us. Until then we can at least do this stuff a little smarter and write legislation with using our prefrontal cortex instead of our amygdala.

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