Should People be allowed to buy candy with food stamps

Robert Waldmann

In the Washington Post Jane Black has an interesting article on an interesting policy proposal — Agsec Tom Vilsack is opening a discussion of whether federal nutrition programs can be used to encourage (or force) people to eat healthier food.

The argument for pro is that obesity is a terrible problem in the USA and particularly for people who use food stamps, so extending the ban on buying alcohol with food stamps to soft drinks could save many lives.

The argument against is that it is paternalistic. Also that an effort to decide what food is healthy will lead to the mother of all lobbying battles.

I think this is a case for behavioral economics. A mandate is illiberal, doing nothing causes un-necessary deaths — time for a nudge. In the current program, most recipients pay cash for food stamps which cost less than their face value. It can’t be paternalistic or illiberal to add a new option. I would sell “healthy food stamps” at a discount (or offer more per month to people so poor they pay 0). That expands the options for recipients.

I’d say healthy food stamps for a start can be used to buy only fresh fruit and vegetables and vitamins and minerals — then let the lobbying begin. The debate will raise health awareness.

After the jump, I remember being irritated in checkout lines and suggest that hunger activist Jim Weill ought to read Marx.

There is some odd program in Italy by which people buy groceries and which requires them to sign coupons somehow. This is a real hassle for them and for the people behind them in line. The triple currency system with cash and 2 types of food stamps will slow down checkout lines. I can imagine someone buying fruit with healthfood stamps, then (keeping their place in line) buying coca cola with ordinary food stamps, then buying rum with cash and drinking cuba libres to drown their irritation with idiotic social engineers. I don’t want to have to explain to them about the brilliance of behavioral economics and I really don’t want to be behind them in line.

On new insights from Marx, Mr Weill brings back the wages fund argument in the form of the food stamps recipients fund. The argument was that higher nominal wages just meant higher prices for the goods workers bought and had no real effect so why bother with unions and such. The counter argument in the first pages of “Wage Labor and Capital” was that you know there’s a supply curve too and higher prices imply higher supply of goods so a real change in quantities consumed. That settled the question for a century and a half, but now it is back.

Weill argues that the supply of healthy food to poor neighborhoods is fixed by natural law.

More important, anti-hunger activists say, low-income people often choose higher-calorie snacks and fast food because such fare is cheaper and more readily available where they live than nutritious fruits and vegetables. The District’s Ward 8, for example, had no full-service supermarket for nine years until a Giant Food store opened last December.

“If there are areas in cities where there isn’t an apple for sale within a mile radius, restricting food stamps goes beyond paternalism to a form of abuse,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based anti-hunger policy organization.

I assure you, if food stamps could be used only to buy fresh fruit, there wouldn’t be areas in cities where “there isn’t an apple for sale within a mile radius.” I’d guess that if the policy was announced a week in advance that the apples would be there on D-day.

Also, isn’t it a violation of liberal principles to allow there to be areas where there are no apples for sale ? The market says it is not profitable to sell apples there, but liberalism isn’t laissez faire. As a liberal, I think people have a right to access to fresh fruit and that if the market won’t provide it, the state should.

Notice that it appears that Weill believes we must accept the current situation in which some poor people have no access to apples, because its just the way things are.