Barron’s Op-Ed: Time to Reform Food Stamps

barrons, November 23, 2013

Reform Food Stamps for Good Nutrition


The Agriculture Department should reform the food-stamp program to permit beneficiaries to purchase only high-nutrient foods.
food stamps barrons illustration BA-BD512_OV_ill_G_20131122171744

Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, food-stamp spending has more than doubled, to roughly $80 billion a year, and the number of recipients has risen 70%, to 47 million. But the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are hitting the panic button over a scheduled phaseout of special benefits enacted to fight the last recession.

Perhaps more importantly, the food-stamp program (recently renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) has dismally failed to improve nutrition, while fueling epidemics of obesity and diabetes. And the current program is more corrupt and wasteful than the program that exists in the imagination of its supporters.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition, and consumer services, bragged in January that food-stamp “fraud has been reduced to the lowest rate in the history of the program.” The Agriculture Department claims that only 1% of benefits are illicitly exchanged for cash or alcohol, drugs, or other prohibited uses.

The Agriculture Department has rebuffed all efforts to target the food-stamp program toward healthful eating. It should be reformed to permit beneficiaries to purchase only high-nutrient foods

But this is based solely on the number of violators who get caught. The USDA’s inspector general noted in September 2012 that the Food and Nutrition Service “reports recipient fraud as the number of recipients disqualified each year. This number only includes those recipients actually identified committing fraud and does not estimate the rate of potential fraud.” This is as deceptive as claiming that the number of speeding tickets that police issue automatically reveals how many drivers exceeded the speed limit.

The inspector’s staff visited 10 states and discovered that, despite a vast increase in food-stamp enrollment, “none of the states had increased the resources” for fraud detection and prevention efforts.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier complained in February that the biggest fraud issue in her state was individuals selling their food-stamp electronic-benefit card, then claiming it was lost or stolen. Roughly 70% of all such cards issued in New Mexico last year were replacement cards. Squier told Albuquerque’s KOB-TV, “We know that there are some people who lose them four, six, or eight times, and it’s pretty suspicious, but you can’t do anything about it based on the federal rules. They want people to have the cards.”

With USDA encouragement and subsidies, state governments exert far more effort boosting enrollment than preventing abuses. Four years after the official end of the recession, Florida is paying individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food-stamp recipients per month. The Agriculture Department urges state and local governments to conduct food-stamp parties and bingo games to fan enthusiasm for the program.

FEDERAL LAW SAYS the main purpose of food stamps is “raising levels of nutrition among low-income households.” The program is a dismal failure on this score: The USDA’s most recent national study found no difference in nutrient intake between food-stamp recipients and eligible nonrecipients.

Food stamps are simply a blank check to enable recipients to procure tens of thousands of calories per month. Almost half of the women collecting food stamps are obese, according to a 2011 study financed by the National Institutes of Health. It also noted that “persons receiving food stamps consume more meat, added sugars, and total fats rather than fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products.” A California study (published in 2010 in Public Health Nutrition) found that adult food-stamp recipients are 30% more likely to be obese than eligible nonrecipients. An analysis by Ohio State University scientist Jay Zagorsky found that the longer women stayed on food stamps, the more weight they gained.

But the USDA does not seem to care whether it’s misfeeding or overfeeding low-income Americans. The department’s inspector general reported in June that most subsidized households receive benefits from more than one federal food program—even though the amount of federal food stamps provided to people with virtually no income is intended to ensure 100% of calorie needs. The inspector recommended that the USDA study the impact of “providing overlapping benefits” to recipients, but the department rejected the proposal because “it would divert limited resources away from other pressing issues of greater policy relevance.”

Several states and New York City petitioned the USDA to permit them to modify the program to prevent food stamps from being used for junk food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that recipients spend $4 billion worth of food stamps a year on soft drinks. Catherine Templeton, director of South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, declared, “I am charged with finding ways to address the obesity epidemic in South Carolina. One way is by reducing the poor quality of nutrition available under the [food-stamp program].”

For many supporters of the program, enabling poor people to buy sodas and chips is a human-rights issue. Maine state Sen. Margaret Craven declared, “Treating people who are poor differently undermines their humanity and undermines our humanity for treating them that way.” Edward Cooney, executive director of the federally funded Congressional Hunger Center, claims that restrictions on food stamps’ use would “stigmatize” low-income people, and he asks, “Do we really want the government in our grocery baskets?” This is as inane as the 2009 protest sign, “Keep government hands off my Medicare.” The USDA has rebuffed all efforts to target food stamps for healthful eating.

Food stamps should be reformed on the model of the Women, Infants, and Children program, which permits beneficiaries to purchase only high-nutrient foods. WIC avoids most of the collateral damage that the food-stamp program inflicts.

No one is entitled to unlimited freedom of choice in spending other people’s money. The federal government can help those who cannot help themselves without wasting money and fueling a national obesity epidemic.

Tagline: JAMES BOVARD is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Lost Rights, and eight other books.


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7 Responses to Barron’s Op-Ed: Time to Reform Food Stamps

  1. Tom Blanton November 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    It would make a lot of sense to limit SNAP purchases to high-nutrient foods if the intended
    beneficiaries of the program were the individuals buying the food. But, if the actual
    beneficiaries are those selling and manufacturing the food, it would be discriminatory.

    After all, when Big Agra buys politicians they deserve a return on their investment in
    this fascist economic system and food factories don’t always produce very healthy food. As SNAP
    is part of the farm bill, it would seem the intended beneficiary of SNAP is in fact Big Agra
    and not the poor starving little people that our benevolent political hacks feel such deep
    compassion for.

    Or, in other words, let the rubes eat soy protein mixed with a little high fructose corn syrup.
    Besides, without a generous SNAP program, big employers might have to pay their workers
    more if taxpayers didn’t subsidize food for workers’ families, and that would hurt the bottom lines
    of valued campaign donors.

    I’m betting that the SNAP program is working just as the politicians intended it to work.

  2. Jim November 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    Rep. Marino, a Penn GOP congressman, pushed an amendment to require disclosure of what food stamps actually purchased. Lots of opposition from the food industry on that one – esp. the junk food industry….

    • Tom Blanton November 24, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      Upon further reflection on SNAP, I remembered reading about the tremendous amount of loot being raked in by JPMorgan and others processing the payments on the SNAP EBT cards. I believe it was billions of dollars, not merely millions.

      I must also confess that I may have also profited by SNAP subsidies recently when I hired an “unemployed” gentleman to do some repair work & painting on my decks/porches. This fellow, unemployable by reason of habitual drinking, works fairly steady but gets maximum SNAP benefits because they don’t know about the nature of his “unemployment”. He also provided additional relevant information about SNAP.

      It was a bit shaky at times (it took almost 3 days to do one day of work), many unfulfilled grandiose promises were broken, and there were many empty beer cans on the ground (he got another drunk who collects aluminum cans to pick them up), but he did complete the actual tasks which I hired him to do – and he did a pretty good job if you didn’t look too closely (I did spend about 10 minutes painting up a few missed spots). I estimate that if I had hired a licensed, bonded, and insured legitimate contractor, I would have paid three times what this man charged (depriving me of a few laughs and another adventure in agorism). Thanks for the subsidy, SNAP!

      I also had a conversation with him about how with EBT cards, one couldn’t sell the old paper food stamps to buy dope and booze anymore. He informed me that I was wrong. The thing being that with the cards, one must “rent” out the cards to people that can be trusted to bring them back. I believe he had first hand knowledge of this and wasn’t simply bragging.

      The thing is that I pretty much knew what I was getting into when I contracted this guy. He’s had a complicated life, lots of really tough breaks and numerous faults. But, the bottom line is that he is a better man than many and despite being totally unreliable, is more reliable than many people that are placed on pedestals by polite society. That he rips off the government is the least of my worries and in the long run, he probably contributes more to the world than he takes and he’ll probably never rip the government off as badly as the government has ripped him off, back when his life was a little more “normal”.

      I’m thinking the best way to reform SNAP is to eliminate it along with the rest of government.

      • Jim November 25, 2013 at 10:52 am #

        Tom, that’s a neat story – that for posting it. I have known quite a few folks who were temporarily on food stamps who were looking to move on in life and find gainful employment.

        My space was limited in this piece. In other writings I have done on food stamps, I have also hammered federal policies that made food far more expensive than it otherwise would be. (That was also a theme of good ol’ Farm Fiasco). Politicians have long shown contempt for any low-to-moderate income person who wanted to preserve their independence.

  3. Dirk Sabin November 25, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Who knew that hiring a drunk could be so satisfying. At least the Drunk has an able excuse for their various lapses.
    Meanwhile, “Quantitative Easing” remains the Twerking of the Financial world, gyrating the cheeks up and down to keep the
    dollars rolling. Kale vs. Doritos? why should we expect a ward of the State to quibble in such a manner , particularly with Dorito’s better packaging?

  4. Kevin Benko December 20, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Sadly, I receive foodstamps.
    I had a stroke 2_1/4 years ago and I partially brain-damaged and unable to work. My last job had lasted approximately 3-4 weeks as a community college instructor before they fired me because of my Aphasia. I also have a right-side weakness and my executive faculties are, essentially, not functioning. This means that I can really not be trusted with money or with dealing with people.
    Thus, I receive foodstamps as I am on SSI, but no one that has dealt with me after a few times trusts my judgement. Thus, I am on SSI because there is no one willing to work with my brain damage. Although, I do eat healthy. I avoid starches (I am on a Paleo diet) and fruits, my diet consisting on meat and vegetables, primarily. I do not receive chips, candies, soft-drinks, and other such items, because I know that these things are bad for me.
    So, please do not assume that all foodstamp recipients are fat ass loads of a waste of skin, but too many, in my opinion, are.

  5. Jim December 20, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Mr. Benko – thanks for your comment. I don’t assume that all food stamp recipients are misusing the aid they receive. I have known other individuals who ate very prudently with their limited allotment.

    Unfortunately, the program is structured in a way that does not spur prudent purchases by vast numbers of recipients.

    The Washington Post had another article in its series on food stamp recipients on Monday. The Post showed a photo of the woman’s refrigerator after she had gotten her monthly allotment. There was a stack of frozen pizzas, among other items of doubtful nutrition.

    Good luck with your health and with the Paleo diet!