It’s Time to Scrap SNAP

Once again, Congress is debating whether to allow junk food purchases using food stamps.

Should your tax dollars be used to buy Mountain Dew? Last week, Congress debated whether to ban junk food purchases using food stamps (officially known as SNAP benefits). While policymakers previously considered such a rule, debate reignited after the USDA reported that 20% of all SNAP benefits are spent on sugar and salt-laden snacks and beverages devoid of nutritional content.

It may be a knee jerk reaction to support a junk food ban, such a proposal merits more careful consideration. Policymakers commonly paint recipients of government benefits as shiftless, wasteful, and ultimately undeserving of assistance. Indeed, it is worth noting that the earlier-mentioned USDA report also found that about 20% of food expenditures for people not-receiving welfare were on junk food. In the Washington Post, conservative commentator Charles Lane pushes back against this finding. His argument: while the government has no right to meddle in purely private transactions, such a ban would assure Congress that public money is spent to promote nutrition. Such an argument based on public health concerns would be convincing if Congress didn’t continue year-after-year to rubber stamp billions in subsidies for corn and soybean growers that make items such as chips and soda cheap in the first place.

The current debate over junk food reflects how far our policymakers are behind the curve. When commentators refer to “welfare”, they are referencing a hodgepodge of government programs and associated acronyms such as SNAP, WIC, and TANF to name a few. Each program has different eligibility criteria and different restrictions. To add to the confusion, state governments also spend federal funds for welfare programs not on benefits but on programs designed to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies; in Oklahoma, only 9% of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds are actually given to needy families. Such a social safety-net is incredibly inefficient and difficult to administer.

Ultimately, needy families and individuals know their needs best. Congress should scrap the current myriad of government assistance programs in favor of restriction-free cash transfers to the poor. In other words, the government should guarantee a universal basic income for all citizens. Policymakers argue that the current system ensures taxpayer money is well spent, but current limitations on how welfare recipients can use their benefits are arbitrary at best; for example, food stamps cannot be used to purchase useful items such as diapers, first-aid kits, or even hot meals. Such restrictions are easily skirted anyway. Through informal barter, welfare recipients can get what they really want: cash. Paternalistic and ultimately unenforceable welfare regulations degrade and demoralize an already disaffected demographic encouraging subversion and disrespect of the law. Instead of trying to micromanage the poor, Congress should entrust and empower individuals to meet their own needs.