Choice is not an option. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Blue Apron-ing of SNAP? Not the best of Silicon Valley, but the worst of international aid

Presidential budgets are wish lists with little chance of becoming a reality. But why would anyone wish to create a vast government-run food distribution program?

That’s exactly what one provision in Trump’s recently submitted budget would do, as outlined by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday.

He described a proposal to distribute boxes of food to people currently benefitting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP — also known as food stamps). At the same time, the government would cut in half the funds currently given on debit cards, which SNAP participants use to buy whatever food they need.

For roughly 38 million people who rely on the program, the net effect would be to dictate half of the food they get, while also creating a government procurement and logistics nightmare.

Mulvaney gave the news a cute hook: Blue Apron for food stamps. A nod to the tech sector, as if he were just bringing a little Silicon Valley disruption to an outdated government program. Branding aside, this proposal defies the latest thinking on how to provide social safety nets, not to mention current trends in the tech sector.

Start by discarding the Blue Apron association. The company’s meal boxes bring fresh ingredients and easy recipes for around $10 per serving. To keep costs in check, the government effort would cut out fresh produce and meat, as well as consumer choice.

Lessons from aid

Eliminating choice and adding in large-scale food distribution sounds less like a tech company, and more like the traditional approach taken by humanitarian relief agencies. Is that a good model for services in the United States? Actually, it’s not a good model in most contexts. The aid sector has been moving away from mass procurement and distribution of goods by international agencies.

Countries on the receiving end of aid have driven much of this change, with government and civil society actors pushing back on the control exerted by international NGOs and donors. Those external actors have had to rethink their roles and relationships to communities they nominally serve, in light of increasing local ownership over aid and development.

The core argument is that people know what they need better than outsiders. But carry the argument for ownership one step further, and you’ll see it shouldn’t stop with national governments or local nonprofits. Why would they know better what a family needs than the family itself? For long-term poverty reduction, groups like GiveDirectly have been working to make direct transfers from donors to families in need a norm as well.

Underpinning this shift is the importance of dignity: People may need support to get through hard times or expand their future opportunities, but they should still be able to make choices for themselves.

A second shift is bolstering the argument: increasing evidence that distributing cash is the most effective and efficient route to positive outcomes for the recipients. For their own work, GiveDirectly has been documenting the evidence of impact. In crisis contexts, the evidence on cash transfers is less robust, partly because research is more challenging in those contexts, but mostly because aid agencies have been slower to just give cash, worrying that recipients won’t find everything they need crisis-struck markets.

What this proposal does

Both factors driving this shift in international aid — the dignity and choice of people receiving aid, and the effectiveness of just giving cash — make the Trump administration’s proposal all the more bewildering. Conservatives lean heavily on the idea that economic choice sets us free. Regulations slashed, programs shrunk, services privatized — all in the name of greater freedom.

That conviction earned the Republican party support from business elites, for whom freedom from government enables their freedom to profit at the expense of others. It pre-dated the Trump administration but sees its fullest expression in the gutting of environmental regulations under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the repeated assaults on the Affordable Care Act, and the clipped wings at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Why would a government-shrinking administration seek to turn SNAP into a food distribution program? Perhaps they believe in the goals of the program but don’t trust poor people to make their own decisions. Demonizing public assistance recipients as lazy and entitled has been a favorite conservative talking point since at least the era of Ronald Reagan, who introduced the image of a “welfare queen” cheating government programs with fake names and living large on the public purse. Conservatives beat the same drum today — with more than a tinge of racism injected into their portrayal of welfare recipients.

Forcing pre-selected foods on SNAP families follows this tradition of painting the poor as undeserving freeloaders who squander their money on drugs and booze. That image is so ingrained in conservative minds that it overrides their alleged disdain for paternalistic government, thereby enabling Republican efforts to add work requirements, drug testing, and other barriers to public assistance.

More cynically…

The potential logistical nightmare suggests another interpretation of this proposal. Relief organizations are moving away from centralized mass procurement due, in part, to its inefficiency compared to market-based mechanisms. So switching SNAP to government-run program could be part of a long-game to justify killing it off. Step one: Promise unrealistic savings from government distribution. Step two: Contract it through the federal government’s byzantine procurement system, racking up overhead and adding in a healthy buffer for private profit. Step three: Wait until costs skyrocket, then make the case for scrapping the program entirely.

Too cynical? Republicans have shown little inhibition about using dishonest arguments to hurt the poor. If there’s a reasoning that would save a goods-based version of SNAP in the face of ballooning costs, look no further than the “America’s Harvest Box” itself: filled with “homegrown” products, it would be a huge revenue windfall for farmers and agribusiness. Again, contradicting Republican orthodoxy on markets and privatization, but aligning with Trump’s transactional politics: he’d take a victory lap to turn the program into votes.

This mirrors a discredited practice from the international aid sector known as “tied aid”, whereby donor countries require aid money be spent domestically on goods shipped overseas. The result is much less food provided for every tax dollar spent, compared to procuring it locally or on an open market, with the extra profit going to politically influential agribusinesses and shipping companies. While most countries have stopped tying their aid, Congress has repeatedly shot down efforts to change the practice: the US continues to require that food aid be purchased in the US, and at least half transported on US-flagged vessels.

Lastly, despite the effort to associate itself with the tech sector, Trump’s SNAP proposal runs counter to one of Silicon Valley’s newest shibboleths: the universal basic income. An old idea, it’s now framed as a response to rising inequality and the threat of job losses from automation. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg have all voiced support; Chris Hughes has written a book about it; Y Combinator is running a test in Oakland.

Basic income’s glimmer may dull as it hits political barriers, but at least it’s moving in the right direction: placing trust in its recipients and respecting their dignity to make their own choices. The international aid sector is bucking institutional inertia to do the same.

As described by Mulvaney, the SNAP proposal goes in the opposite direction. It will probably never come to pass, but then again, many of us thought Trump would never be president. One year into his administration, we’ve learned that we have to fight his backward policies at every turn.