Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Tracking what you eat - the food stamp slippery slope

As a county commissioner, I saw first-hand the efforts to increase the number of people receiving food stamps - now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Access Program).

The problem, the government said, was that millions of eligible Americans weren't actually participating. Imagine that - people who qualified for a government hand-out weren't actually signing up for it.

Some claimed it was the stigma of the paper coupons that embarrassed people to the point that they'd go without the magnanimity of the government. So they went to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, similar to debit cards to make it less obvious to others in a checkout lane that you were using government handouts. And they changed the name to make it sound more palatable.

Voila! Success - as the participation rate increased to roughly 66% of those eligible.

But that wasn't the only thing. Massive advertising campaigns - everything from commercials on radio and television to workers placed at food banks - encouraged more people to apply.

And then there was the eligibility rules. While the federal government sets the eligibility, states were able to do 'special' things - like automatically grant food stamps to people already enrolled in other welfare programs like TANF - Temporary Assistance to Needy Families - without checking their actual income and assets to see if they'd qualify for SNAP alone. And some areas got waivers, based upon statistical data like unemployment rates, and increased the eligibility level from 130% of poverty level up to as much as 400% of poverty level. That raised the amount of money a family could make and still get the assistance.

So it should come as no surprise that we see a record number of people now enrolled in the program - 42.9 million as of September 2010. Despite what many claim, it's clear that the increased levels of eligibility along with the massive enrollment efforts have had as much of an impact as the economy in increasing the numbers of participants.

Such programs claim to be a 'helping hand,' but I believe they're really just another method to create a dependent class who rely upon politicians for their daily needs. While that is insidious enough, there is a further danger that seems to fit so well into the current Washington discussions led by First Lady Michelle Obama - controlling what we choose to eat.

Now I know that there are many people of all political persuasions who believe that individuals in SNAP should be restricted in what they purchase. The logic is that if you're so poor that you need other people's tax dollars in order to feed your family, you shouldn't be living on TV dinners, soda pop, munchies and candy. And there is a lot of validity to that perspective.

But the new EBT cards - like frequent buyer cards - can track what you purchase. And that makes them a new tool in government control, as this article from explains:

With its EBT system, it (U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service) can now intimately monitor and potentially influence the eating habits of more than 40 million Americans. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already floated the idea of making soda off-limits for SNAP recipients. (In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied Minnesota permission to enact a similar ban.) Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, thinks a more general form of gastronomic policing is the way to go. “Rather than create a modern-day Prohibition on specific foods or beverages, the food stamp program should be restructured to cap the total calories purchased each month,” he writes at The Atlantic.

So far the government has shown more interest in rewarding good behavior than punishing bad. In December 2011, the FNS will start testing a “healthy incentives” program in Hampden County, Massachusetts. Participants will receive a 30 percent discount on their EBT purchases of fruits and vegetables. As coercion goes, this may qualify as pretty benign stuff. You give millions of hungry Americans money for food. And then you give them even more money if they agree to eat like upscale locavores battling Big Corn Syrup.

But locavores want to decentralize the food system in an effort to reclaim control over what goes into their bodies. SNAP is moving in the opposite direction. And as its new status as a behavior modification tool grows increasingly apparent, so too does the realization that the program’s growth, commonly attributed to economic desperation, is fueled at least as much by policy imperatives. Food stamp use has hit historic highs because the government’s effort to expand the program has hit historic highs. Even more than McDonald’s, the feds have mastered the art of supersizing.

The technology exists and can be used. My Kroger card tracks what I purchase and sends me coupons in the mail for items I purchase regularly.

The bigger problem, though, is that so many who need to take advantage of the food stamp program probably don't even know about this. And, if they do, perhaps they figure it's an acceptable price to pay for the assistance. They might even justify it as a proper control, even if it's not being used ... today.

But in the future - what, exactly, will the federal government do with the information they can easily collect? As the Bard says, "Aye, there's the rub."


Roman said...

It has amazed me that "food stamps" exist to the degree that they do. Almost everyone who shops for groceries has first hand knowledge of "abuse".

Years ago, helping my mother shop, the man just ahead of us bought a bag of frozen shrimp with his food stamps. The person this man was with questioned the purchase of the shrimp, as the buyer did not like shrimp, the man replied:" No, but the fish sure do".

Tim Higgins said...


We should beware of government "testing" programs, as it has yet to find one that it hasn't decided was successful, sought to make permanent, and wanted to expand.

Some might also look at this as a sop to the poor for the increasing prices of fruits and vegetables largely caused by increased government regulations. A sop that will prove to be a radical expansion of program costs carried on the back of those still paying taxes.

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