Food Stamp Stigma

(cc photo by Mills Baker)

(cc photo by Mills Baker)

To an extent, the viability of social democratic public services depends on a cultural context that maintains a modicum of bourgeois distaste for dependence upon them. In other words, you want people to have the attitude that these services are available for people who are really in need, but that it’s preferable to earn what you need through work when possible. So I have some sympathy for Mickey Kaus’ idea that use of “food stamps” should be socially stigmatized, but I think he takes it too far:

But a stigma placed on cash-like welfare (which food stamps are) remains a positive sign of a healthy work ethic. If you came across two societies–Society A, in which food stamps were stigmatized, with families reluctant to go on the dole even if they were eligible, and Society B, in which they weren’t, you would want to bet on (and live in) Society A. It’s one thing to relax the stigma on welfare in times of epic economic decline. It’s another if the stigma doesn’t return with the possibility of employment. The CBPP chart would also have demonstrated that food stamp rolls have risen rapidly before–in the slump from 1988 to 1994–only to fall just as rapidly when the economy picked up in the mid-90s. Of course, at that time we had a President (Clinton) who was campaigning against “welfare as we know it.” It seems unlikely that President Obama will repeat the performance.

One thing here is that I just doubt that Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” was really all that decisive in the decline in food stamp enrollment. Objective economic conditions improved rapidly during this period, with the late-1990s being the only period of substantial low-end wage growth of the past several decades. Whether food stamp use declines or not as we enter an economic recovery depends first and foremost on how robust that recovery actually is.

But as for Society A and Society B, whether or not I would bet on Society A is going to have a lot to do with whether Society A is suffering from much larger quantities of undernourished children. If it’s able to scrimp on food stamps without achieving that result then, yes, its bourgeois stolidity looks promising. But if Society B is doing a much better job of ensuring that its kids are healthy, then Society B is going to have a better-educated workforce, lower crime, less disability, and a generally better-off population and economy for years to come.

Which I think leads to the conclusion that the problem with SNAP isn’t that it ought to be more stigmatized, but that it’s too much like cash welfare. It’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a supplemental program to assist people with obtaining adequate nutrition is a good idea. But if you read ye olde eligibility guidelines you’ll see that “nonalcoholic beverages, snack foods, soft drinks, candy, and ice.” are all eligible. I like Fritos, I like Diet Coke, I like Twizzlers, but none of this is supplementing anyone’s nutrition. Conversely, you can’t use SNAP money to buy any “foods that are hot at the point of sale” even though this restriction has nothing to do with promoting nutrition. I don’t think we need to go all the way in the direction of turning this into a monastic “fruit, vegetables, and whole grains only” program but we could surely go a good deal further in the direction of targeting the money at actual nutrition assistance.