The Food Stamp Gambit

Recently, at one of Sal 11000 Beta’s events, we were asked to engage in an activity. We were told that the average food stamp benefit was about $150 per person per month, which works out to about $6 per meal for a family of four. We were then given a newspaper ad for a grocery store and asked if we could feed a family of four on a food stamp benefit. This is apparently a big thing now in social justice circles.

Of course, the food stamp benefit is supposed to be supplementary. You’re not usually required to feed a family on just that. For most of the poor, they have some additional cash they can devote to food.

But even with that, the exercise completely backfired. It didn’t persuade me that you couldn’t feed a family on food stamps; it persuaded me that you could. It became immediately obvious that if you bought food in bulk and concentrated on staples that $6 per meal was adequate. Granted, you couldn’t afford luxuries like deserts or soda. But, to paraphrase O’Rourke, the biblical injunction is to feed the hungry, not wine and dine them.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. We feed my family of four for about $800 a month and that’s with only some basic economization and a few luxuries. And one of the biggest problems the poor have right now is obesity, not hunger.

(The latter problem has been a problem for people saying we need to increase anti-poverty spending. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that tens of millions of Americans are going hungry when obesity rates are highest among the poor. What they talk about now is “food insecurity”, or the stress of not being sure that they’ll have enough money/benefits to go around. That’s shifting the goal posts a bit.)

When faced with this, the social justice crowd turns the tables and says that, since luxury foods are a rare treat for food stamp families (as they should be) the real problem is “shaming” of people who buy them on food stamps.

Look, I think the current efforts to restrict food stamps so people can’t buy things like soda are a bit misguided. But it’s not ridiculous for the public to get a little up in arms about what is being bought on their dime. Food stamps are intended to keep people from going hungry, not to replace the food budget or create the kind of “food security” that comes with working. And while poor people shouldn’t be humiliated, being on the public’s dime should be associate with at least a little bit of shame. Shame is not a bad thing; it’s often what motivates people to do better. I know people who’ve spent some time on food stamps … middle class people who lost jobs or had some other crisis like a divorce. They did what was necessary but they also got off them as soon as they could. Why is that a bad thing?

Telling people there’s nothing wrong with being on food stamps or any other form of welfare has been a growing emphasis on the Left. But this doesn’t “empower” the poor; it disempowers them by asserting that they have no control over their life and no choice but to be on the dole.

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