On Monday, the Trump White House proposed “a bold new approach” to making it harder for the poorest Americans to waste taxpayer money on the sinful indulgence of eating. Their solution—to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, with a USDA Foods package. The package would include items like milk, cereals, beans, canned fruit, and vegetables, and it's but the latest in a long line of Republican attempts to ban using food stamps to buy any number of “luxury items”—from lobster to decorated cakes. Are the poor wasting money on celebrating a birthday or enjoying some small sweetness, asks the administration with a habit for spending historic sums on taxpayer funded private jets, first-class travel, and vacations?
With their latest proposal to shred the social safety net, the Trump administration again has invented a problem whose only solution is taking money from the poor to give to the rich. When giving the wealthy a $1.5 trillion tax cut leaves you with only a hammer, every poor person looks like a nail.
You may be wondering if poor people are, indeed, blowing their average $254 per month of SNAP benefits on shopping carts full of junk food or, even worse, “filet mignons and crab legs,” as one Missouri lawmaker reported three years ago in defense of his state’s proposed ban.
“In a word, no,” says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. According to the USDA, people spend about 40 cents for every dollar on basic items (like meat, fruit, and vegetables), 40 cents on prepared foods and ingredients, and 20 cents on sweetened drinks and desserts. In other words, if you are creepily staring at the shopping carts of random people at the grocery store, you won’t be able to tell the difference between someone on SNAP and someone who isn’t.
As it turns out, the more money someone on SNAP receives, the healthier choices they make. That’s what research by Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher at the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities shows: “An additional $19.48 per capita per month in spending on food is associated with increases in the purchase of more nutritious foods.”
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An earlier experiment gave an extra $60 to households every summer month for every child in the home, what amounted to approximately 66,800 children over the course of the study. The researchers found a clear impact: Kids who received the benefits ate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and consumed more milk—with “no impact on total daily consumption of added sugars from foods and beverages.” It’s almost as if poor people don’t need the government telling them how to eat, a proposition that a political party all about small government known as “Republicans” might have in a past incarnation endorsed.
It is true that some public health experts have been concerned that food stamps are, as one professor argues, basically, “a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry.” But others, such as Schanzenbach disagree with that assessment: “Since about 5 cents on every dollar is spent on soda, if that were true it would be a particularly inefficient subsidy.”
Yet even if the concern about soda purchases were well-founded, targeting the consumer for the problems of the soda industry makes as much sense as targeting a patient for the problems of the pharmaceutical industry. The problems to be solved are not the “healthy habits” of the poor, but what puts the poor at risk for unhealthy choices: a lack of available grocery stores and access to public transportation, a stigma against the poor buying organic food, and work schedules that make “healthy habits” a privilege.
Fortunately, none of the state bans have been approved, at least so far (Delaware moved to ban using food stamps to buy junk food earlier this month), which also means we have avoided one of the other how did you not think of this issues with banning people from spending SNAP on certain items. How do they plan on implementing these bans? “Stores will be in the monitoring business,” says Kristin Butcher at the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities.
SNAP food item bans would effectively turn cashiers into a police force, which is especially cruel when we think about who is likely to need SNAP. “One of the most common industries for SNAP participants to work in is grocery stores,” Schanzenbach reminds us. That helps explain why the grocery industry has opposed cuts and changes to food stamps in the past.
If the Trump administration were truly interested in people buying more nutritious products with SNAP, they would increase the food stamp benefit, not turn it into a shitty government version of Blue Apron. If the human element of families not starving doesn’t do it for you, there is a clear economic benefit, too: “It is also an effective fiscal stimulus to local areas,” Schanzenbach says, meaning that when people spend more at the grocery store, more local jobs are created. “Every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity,” according to one USDA report. That means an increase of $1.79 billion for every $1 billion spent on food stamps. Now, if only we had the mind of the G.O.A.T. accountant to tell us if that is a good thing.
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