Biggest Food Stamp Junkies (2013 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

The relationship between the government and food stamp recipients has been compared to that of a drug pusher and junkies. In each case the state (or dealer) is supplying a commodity that in the long run will harm the recipient (or junkie). Pushers are counting on their victims’ lack of foresight and self-control. The conventional end-game has junkies completely at the mercy of their suppliers. The way to prevent – or undo – this tragedy is to break the links that bind recipients to their masters.

Critics of the food stamp program (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – abbreviated SNAP) deplore that it is turning low income citizens into dependents of the state. They are alarmed that the number of people with modest incomes on food stamps has increased stupendously in the last four years.

Significantly, it is not merely a case of more people deciding on their own to apply for SNAP benefits. Low income recipients of food stamps are not entirely to blame. Many have been seduced. The government is actively marketing the food stamp program with television and radio commercials that urge people to sign up. The gist of the advertising is that SNAP will help you maintain your health, and you should join as soon as you can. The commercials do not disclose that SNAP is addictive and will cripple your autonomy – keeping you firmly under the heavy thumb of government.

There are supporters of SNAP in both the Democratic and Republican parties. But the program is primarily a tool the Democrats use to expand their political power. Food stamp recipients know that Democrats are pushing SNAP hard by aggressively taking steps to increase the number of “clients” and the size of cash grants. By contrast, recipients know that Republicans are reluctant to expand SNAP and may even try to shrink it. Guess how a person receiving SNAP benefits is likely to vote in an election.

Those who see the toxic effects of food stamps are likely to focus their attention on the people who use EBT/SNAP cards, which are essentially pre-paid debit cards. Critics opine that the standards for receiving benefits should be made more stringent. Perhaps the government ought to describe SNAP as a last resort rather than encouraging people to jump in. Maybe advertising SNAP and making it attractive is bad policy.

But it is interesting to note that the biggest food stamp junkies – retail establishments – are often overlooked. SNAP has a powerful, malevolent grip on food stores. Retail food outlets have remarkably thin margins. A small uptick or downturn in sales can profoundly affect their bottom line. The SNAP program has introduced a growing revenue stream that merchants would be reluctant to give up.

The owners of retail establishments might be even more addicted to the food stamp program than are low income recipients. Most individuals who use SNAP would be happy to forfeit their benefits in exchange for a high paying job. By contrast, retail management recognizes that the extensive, well-financed SNAP puts tremendous pressure on them to participate. If they fail to get with the program they will miss out on the opportunity to tap into a hoard of money. Furthermore, they know that whether or not they accept EBT/SNAP cards most of their competitors will.

In New York City where I live the supermarkets, smaller grocery stores, and drug stores have prominent signs that read “we accept EBT/SNAP cards.” Food stamps have been around for a long time, but only recently have retail establishments put up signage to attract cardholders. What has changed? The potential volume of business coming from SNAP is greater than it has ever been and is trending upward.

The management teams of retail establishments know that a dollar obtained from a SNAP participant can be more lucrative than a dollar from a conventional customer. Of course, they attempt to get the biggest bang for the government-funded buck. They know that people are more careful and price-conscious with money they have earned than with government prizes, and retailers arrange their stores accordingly. I have not done a scientific survey, but in the few establishments I visit the “we accept EBT/SNAP cards” signs are positioned adjacent to full-priced, higher-margin foods and are conspicuously absent where items are on sale.

Food prices for everyone have increased dramatically in the last four years, and several forces are contributing to this. For example, ethanol subsidies and mandates divert corn away from food production and towards fuel manufacturing. The federal stimulus poured huge amounts of devalued dollars into the economy. And SNAP, which ostensibly is supposed to make nutrition easier to obtain, has funneled a river of money into food stores which pushes prices even higher.

Notice that when it comes to political action the Democrats can count on retail food establishments that accept EBT/SNAP cards to support them. You can expect industry lobbyists to argue that SNAP is vital, should endure, and ought to be expanded.

In the short term there is little that can be done to prevent low income people and businesses from losing their autonomy to food stamp pushers. Gently applying the brakes on SNAP, making it harder to get onto the program, and ramping down benefits are small steps in the right direction.

In the longer term the solution is to get the government out of the food stamp business entirely. The state should stick to its proper function – protecting individual rights. This means using its power to proscribe the use of force and fraud within its borders.

Of course this does not mean that people who are food stamp recipients would not be able to receive aid. Any citizen who would like to see a nutritional assistance program would be free to finance it with his own money. There would undoubtedly be numerous programs – some affiliated with religious institutions, some connected to secular charities – that would offer benefits to those they considered worthy of help. And a major advantage of going the voluntary route is that nobody has to become a junkie.

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

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