Big Bang From Food Stamps (2011 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

Why are government pushers of food stamps so enthusiastic about expanding the program? Not only are more people on food stamps than ever before, but it is the policy of the Obama administration to market food stamps vigorously to American citizens. Is their primary concern to prevent Americans from starving, or are there other more salient motives in play?

Recently Tom Vilsack the Secretary of Agriculture boasted that the number of food stamp recipients (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – abbreviated SNAP) has dramatically increased largely because of his deliberate promotional efforts. Secretary Vilsack said, “we’ve done a pretty good job of working with states that had done a poor job in the past in getting the word out about this program. We’re now working with them to make sure that people who are eligible get the benefits.”

So what is the purported rationale for zealously seeking new food stamp “clients.” It is telling that Secretary Vilsack does not emphasize, even in passing, that the program is rescuing people from starvation. Instead, according to Vilsack, herding more people into food stamps is “the most direct stimulus you can get into the economy during tough times.” He asserted that every dollar in food stamp spending generates $1.84 in economic activity. This Keynesian talking point echos Nancy Pelosi’s 2010 notorious proclamation that food stamps are “the biggest bang for the buck.”

Of course leftist Keynesian politicians and pundits have always asserted that when the government gives spending money away there will be a stimulating effect on the economy. Those who appreciate free markets know that this is a fallacy. Any money given away by the state has to come from somewhere – ultimately from someone who has actually earned it and would have chosen to spend it differently.

Still, Secretary Vilsack and Representative Pelosi are on to something. Increasing the number of people on food stamps is indeed a big bang for the buck – if the intention is to strengthen and expand the power of their party. Every time the federal and state government corrals someone into the food stamp program the Democratic Party reaps multiple dividends.

Consider the food stamp recipients themselves. Once they get used to having the government pay for their groceries many will get addicted and will resist kicking the habit. The reluctance to give up a prize is not something that is unique to food stamps. It could apply to anyone. When you are getting benefits of $100 or more per month for an extended length of time and the payments stop, it feels like a punishment.

When election time rolls around, food stamp recipients know that the Democratic Party is committed to continuing and even expanding their benefits. Republicans, whether they mean it or not, portray themselves as the party that will cut back on entitlements. Guess how food stamp recipients are likely to vote.

And think of the friends and family of food stamp “clients.” The government is reducing the burden of taking care of those they care about. If food stamp benefits were to be curtailed they might have to pitch in more of their own money. Looks like the Democratic Party has just picked up additional supporters.

Of course, while those who receive food stamps and their families can be counted on to vote for “progressive” candidates they are not likely to be big donors to the candidates’ campaigns. That is where retail establishments come into the picture.

Retail supermarkets and drug stores have remarkably slim margins. Every dollar of sales is consequential to their success. In New York City where I live it is obvious that the major stores are competing for food stamp income. Typically there are signs on the outside indicating that the establishment accepts SNAP cards. Inside the store are similar signs that entreat food stamp recipients to spend their entitlement. Note well, the prominent welcome signs would not be there unless the store management regarded food stamp purchases as a significant source of revenue. Why were there fewer and less visible signs ten years ago? Because there were far fewer people enrolled in the SNAP program.

Just as individual people can be seduced by government prizes, so can businesses. To what party will a retail establishment that gets a substantial amount of money from food stamps send contributions? Is it far fetched to conclude the Democrats will be advantaged?

And getting store owners to support Democratic candidates is not the end of the story. Whatever the government can give it can take away. Suppose a retail establishment misbehaves – has a dispute with a union, is not sufficiently green, does not support the newest “progressive” fad. To teach the unruly business a lesson the government could suspend the store’s ability to redeem SNAP payments. That ought to get the attention of management.

Why are food stamp pushers so determined to expand the program? They know it is the biggest bang for the buck to satisfy their hunger for power.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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