Using Food Stamps to Buy Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone (Oh, SNAP)

Like Ezra Klein, I was surprised to read that “one in eight Americans” are now getting food stamps.

food-stamps-charts

But, reading Jason Deparle and Robert Gebeldoff‘s feature, it’s not hard to see why:  We’re actively recruiting people to sign up!

A decade ago, New York City officials were so reluctant to give out food stamps, they made people register one day and return the next just to get an application. The welfare commissioner said the program caused dependency and the poor were “better off” without it.

Now the city urges the needy to seek aid (in languages from Albanian to Yiddish). Neighborhood groups recruit clients at churches and grocery stores, with materials that all but proclaim a civic duty to apply — to “help New York farmers, grocers, and businesses.” There is even a program on Rikers Island to enroll inmates leaving the jail.

“Applying for food stamps is easier than ever,” city posters say.

[…]

But support also turned on chance developments, including natural disasters (which showed the program’s value in emergencies) and the rise of plastic benefit cards (which eased stigma and fraud). The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter.

[…]

States eased limits on people with cars and required fewer office visits from people with jobs. The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.

A self-reinforcing cycle kicked in: outreach attracted more workers, and workers built support for outreach. In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.

I’m of mixed minds on all this.  We should help the working poor — and their children — get enough to eat.  Ditto those too disabled to work and provide for themselves.   De-stigmatizing aid to such people — and even reaching out to make sure they know help’s available — makes sense.

But, rather clearly, we’ve taken this to absurd levels, creating a self-licking ice cream cone in which the program’s main focus is on expanding the program.   Do we really need to be providing food stamps to able-bodied college graduates who are Americorps volunteers?   Or, indeed, if we think Americorps is so valuable, why not provide a stipend so its “volunteers” can afford to feed themselves rather than treating them as indigents?

This is a classic case where good intentions and rent seeking collide.  We want to help the poor.  And we’re doing it through a mechanism that’s good for local farmers, local grocery stores, and the local economy.  And paying for it with federal money!

UPDATE:   Frequent commenter UlyssesUnbound, himself a former Americorps volunteer, offers a detailed response, including this justification:

Americorps VISTA (the only program I have experience with) is a program designed to reduce poverty. The idea is that to reduce poverty, you have to understand poverty. To understand poverty, you have to live it. That includes doing things like living in low-income housing, or using food stamps. You find out what its like to rely on assistance for sustenance, the stigma that is associated with it, and you learn firsthand why it is important to ensure that people lift themselves out if it.

I’m not sure I buy the soundness of this reasoning but it’s interesting.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Economics and Business, Government, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.

    So wait a minute–if nearly 90 percent have incomes below the poverty line, and FEWER people on food stamps are getting welfare (meaning they have less available cash), I’m not sure I see the problem.

    But I’m not sure how this is “self-perpetuating” if working poor people with kids are getting help finding food. Americorps volunteers getting food stamps seems absurd, but you’re not providing a lot of evidence that the rest of the program isn’t working.

  2. DL says:

    Food Stamps? Who’s kidding whom? Those aren’t food stamps, they’re pre-election chits!

  3. James Joyner says:

    So wait a minute–if nearly 90 percent have incomes below the poverty line, and FEWER people on food stamps are getting welfare (meaning they have less available cash), I’m not sure I see the problem.

    Aside from being somewhat dubious about how we define “poverty,” since $11,000 goes a lot further in Alabama than in Connecticut, I’m not sure it’s a huge issue. But I am somewhat bemused at the idea that we’re paying federal workers to go out and recruit people to the government dole. And even more so of paying bonuses to states who do the best job of finding eligible people who didn’t really need the money (like the students).

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    But I am somewhat bemused at the idea that we’re paying federal workers to go out and recruit people to the government dole. And even more so of paying bonuses to states who do the best job of finding eligible people who didn’t really need the money (like the students).

    I take your point on the students, like I said. But one of the biggest problems with poverty programs, both public and private, is that impoverished people often are simply unaware of how they can get help. For example, to this day, something like half the people who are eligible for EITC don’t end up filing for it. I think in that context, having workers find eligible participants is a bit more laudable.

    Although, again, I’m with you on the students.

  5. reid says:

    I’m with Alex. It should be a goal of such programs to help as many people that qualify as possible. That’s the whole purpose. Incentives and advertising do that. Sure, getting the qualifications right (e.g. setting the poverty level) may need some tweaking, but in the end, why blog about this? If you weren’t so reasonable, I’d think it was the right-wing nontroversy of the day.

    I give you credit for your paragraph that begins “I’m of mixed minds…”. Too often, folks on the right accuse anyone on a welfare program of being lazy bums. (Thanks for starting that insulting meme, Ronnie.)

  6. Franklin says:

    I’m just curious what the rules are for what you can buy with food stamps. Can you buy Hot Pockets and Coke, or is there some sort of limit like non-taxed food items?

  7. Drew says:

    I think we ought to have Super Bowl ads for food stamps, Reid.

    Has anyone considered that the reason these people are under the poverty line in the first place is for the most part the same one that causes them to not file the EITC or know of assistance?

  8. Drew says:

    Franklin –

    People always chastise me over this. But the fact of the matter is I’ve seen some awfully plump people buying alcohol and all kinds of goodies with food stamps. Every time I say that I’m admonished that it’s not allowed but I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

    As Groucho Marx said, are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?

  9. reid says:

    Let’s be reasonable, Drew.

  10. Shade Tail says:

    Hey, I agree. Let’s actually *pay* them (or at least, pay them more) so they can afford to live. Makes perfect sense.

    So the bill comes up. It passes the House pretty easily, because the Dem caucus won’t find it controversial and even some GOPers will vote for it.

    Then the Senate has a go. The GOPers who support it will reflexively threaten to filibuster it anyway because hurting the President’s agenda is more important than passing their own agenda. The Dems will cave and slow down the talks. They’ll go to Sen.s Snowe and Collins (ME) and negotiate with them for a few months, watering it down with concessions until the two from Maine regretfully declare that they “just can’t support this bill.” The conserva-Dems like Bayh (IN) and Lincoln (AR) will start parroting the GOP’s talking points, whatever those happen to be, and the whole process will grind to a halt. The bill will be quietly tabled and die shortly afterwards. And nothing will get done. Again.

    The Senate is broken. No matter what problems you point to, nothing will be done about them. Nothing *can* be done about them. Because the GOP is pursuing a Scorched Earth strategy and the Democrats don’t have either the spine or the smarts to push back effectively.

  11. Mnemosyne says:

    So the economy has been losing jobs at at rate of about 400,000 people a month for over a year, unemployment is over 10 percent, and you’re astounded that more people are using food stamps?

    I don’t even know where to start. You seem like a reasonably intelligent person, so I’m not quite sure why you don’t get the connection between “thousands of people suddenly out of work with no income” and “thousands of people suddenly needing help to buy food.”

  12. Mnemosyne says:

    People always chastise me over this. But the fact of the matter is I’ve seen some awfully plump people buying alcohol and all kinds of goodies with food stamps.

    I’ve seen people have to hold up the line to exchange the pepper jack cheese that they were going to buy for regular Monterey jack cheese, because only very specific cheeses are covered by their food stamps and pepper jack is not one of them.

    Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

  13. James Joyner says:

    So the economy has been losing jobs at at rate of about 400,000 people a month for over a year, unemployment is over 10 percent, and you’re astounded that more people are using food stamps?

    The story isn’t about unemployed people getting food stamps but rather the staggering growth among the working poor, almost entirely as a function of government outreach to these people.

  14. Shade Tail says:

    [“The story isn’t about unemployed people getting food stamps but rather the staggering growth among the working poor, almost entirely as a function of government outreach to these people.”]

    OK, and you apparently have a problem with this. Your problem is…what, exactly? The government is actually telling people who need help that they can get help. How terrible…?

  15. legion says:

    But the fact of the matter is I’ve seen some awfully plump people buying alcohol and all kinds of goodies with food stamps.

    Not exactly. It is explicitly forbidden to use food stamps to purchase alcohol or cigarettes – if a store allows something like that to happen, they can get tagged for rather large fines. That said, you may have seen people using food stamps _and_ buying beer or smokes at the same time… I’ve been on food stamps, and when I have something that can’t be bought with stamps (even non-food items like light bulbs, for instance) they don’t register when I run the debit card my state uses to load benefits on – the store’s system debits the card for _only_ the items that are legitimate, and I then have to use another method (cash, a different card, etc) to pay for _those_ items.

  16. legion says:

    Also, James, I think you’re worrying about something that isn’t as big a problem as you think… Increasing the awareness & ease of _application_ for food stamps doesn’t have any effect on who is _eligible_ for that benefit. As I said above, I’ve been on stamps (actually it’s a debit card in my state), but when my wife got a modest raise at her part-time job, that – along with my unemployment payments (which are counted as ‘income’ here – go figure) pushed us above the threshold for eligibility. And that threshold, IIRC, was something under $2000 or so per month. That may be mad money for a college student, but for housing & feeding a family of four, it sucks rocks. And since the program is administered by the individual states, they get to decide their own eligibility standards – so yeah, $11k per year in CT probably gets you more bennies than the same figure in AL…

  17. Alex Knapp says:

    But the fact of the matter is I’ve seen some awfully plump people buying alcohol and all kinds of goodies with food stamps.

    You know, for a fact, that they were using the money to buy food stamps?

    Also, regarding “plumpness”–due to our disgraceful system of agricultural subsidies, price supports and taxes, the cheapest food (refined grains, legumes, CAFO beef, etc.) is also the least nutritious and most likely to lead to obesity. As a consequence, people who don’t have a lot of money on food tend to be fatter and in poorer health.

  18. Richard Bottoms says:

    I’m of mixed minds on all this. We should help the working poor — and their children — get enough to eat. Ditto those too disabled to work and provide for themselves. Do we really need to be providing food stamps to able-bodied college graduates who are Americorps volunteers? Or, indeed, if we think Americorps is so valuable, why not provide a stipend so its “volunteers” can afford to feed themselves rather than treating them as indigents?

    The Republicans despise AmeriCorps and not just a few of them think of it as Marxist indoctrination.

    I don’t know what universe you live in, but in this one not a single member of the GOP would vote for anything that helps Obama, no matter the good it would do or financial sense it makes. What you should be railing against is a strategy of vote NO on everything until the 2010 elections are over.

    How can you seriously suggest that would be even a hint of chance that the GOP would support any bill having to do with AmeriCorps, except for supporting a bill that would abolish it.

    Wake up.

  19. UlyssesUnbound says:

    As an Americorps VISTA Alumni, who used food stamps during my term of service, I want to weigh in on this. I think there is some confusion about how food stamps work, why Americorps members are on it, etc.

    Do we really need to be providing food stamps to able-bodied college graduates who are Americorps volunteers? Or, indeed, if we think Americorps is so valuable, why not provide a stipend so its “volunteers” can afford to feed themselves rather than treating them as indigents?

    Yes. The Americorps members are given a ‘living stipend’ that works out as, essentially ‘poverty rate plus 10%.” In my case, living in Charleston, South Carolina, that came out to about $600 a month. Low income housing was about $400 a month. Gas, insurance, etcetera, and you were looking at about $20 a month for food. I’m very good at stretching a dollar, but $20 a month is pushing. Now, you could say that I could go out and get another job–except I can’t. Americorps prohibits a second taxable job. And since most Americorps work 80, 90+ hours a week, a second job isn’t that feasible anyway—but even if it was, it was prohibited. I assumed when you put in that Americorps members were ‘able bodied’ you were implying they could work more. They can’t, or they would. Second, as stated, they are provided a stipend. It works out to about $3.15 an hour. Why? You may ask. Simple. Americorps VISTA (the only program I have experience with) is a program designed to reduce poverty. The idea is that to reduce poverty, you have to understand poverty. To understand poverty, you have to live it. That includes doing things like living in low-income housing, or using food stamps. You find out what its like to rely on assistance for sustenance, the stigma that is associated with it, and you learn firsthand why it is important to ensure that people lift themselves out if it.

    Your solution was to provide a “stipend” or more realistically increase the stipend so that they can afford food. Either way, isn’t this government assistance, just in the form of cash instead of food stamps? How is this a more financially responsible solution? And I can assure you that food stamps aren’t like Heroin. Once you are on them, you aren’t hooked. The day after I was finished with my term of service, I took a somewhat well paying job and ended my use of food stamps.

    Aside from being somewhat dubious about how we define “poverty,” since $11,000 goes a lot further in Alabama than in Connecticut, I’m not sure it’s a huge issue.

    Poverty, when it comes to foodstamps, is defined state by state. Yes, $11,000 goes a lot farther in Alabama, and states account for this. The purchasing power of the dollar is accounted for.

    Most state’s use Mollie Orshansky’s equation to define poverty. More found here: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/papers/hptgssiv.htm

    This equation is 45 years old, and is quite outdated, as it assumed that food constituted 1/3 of all household expenditures–food makes up far less of household expenditures today than it did in ’64. A few states are trying to find new, more accurate definitions of poverty. New York I think has come up with one that is making waves in poverty-policy circles. I’ll try to find more info on that later, but at the moment I’m at a loss.

    I’m just curious what the rules are for what you can buy with food stamps. Can you buy Hot Pockets and Coke, or is there some sort of limit like non-taxed food items?

    Unfortunately junk food can be purchased. I’ve worked with enough state officials (can’t speak about national officials) who are involved with formulating their state’s foodstamp program. Most official would like to find a way to to block this, but there is a lot of issues with what constitutes junk food, and what doesn’t. It’s a problem that many have tackled and few have succeeded in helping, but it is being tackled. That said, food stamps are adjusted according to wages. I’ll repeat that. Foodstamps are adjusted according to wages. I mad $600 a month, so I only received $80 a month in food assistance. Those who were completely unemployed received upwards of $200. So in my case, if I were to use my $80 on hotpockets, I would not be able to make it stretch nearly as far buying oatmeal, pasta, canned tomatoes, etc. Not everyone is as rational, but there is a kind of built in barrier to buying junk food, in that outside of chips and coke, most prepared junk food is more expensive than grocery staples.

    There are also, of course, food lobbyists waiting in the wings to make sure their company’s products aren’t written in as ‘junk’ food. I have a feeling this is more of a barrier to this issue than any lack of governmental willingness.

    But the fact of the matter is I’ve seen some awfully plump people buying alcohol and all kinds of goodies with food stamps.

    That’s really amazing, considering foodstamps are now in a ‘debit’ system, and any time you try to buy cigarettes or alcohol, an alarm goes off. Sometimes literally. They must have been computer hackers using food stamps to buy alcohol–they hacked into the system and allowed their purchase to go through. Food stamps are no longer ‘stamps.’ Back when they were, you could trade stamps for cash outside of the store. Now its a debit system, and often you have to show ID.

  20. wr says:

    Drew — I’m perfectly willing to believe the anecdote you relate. Yeah, no system is perfect. Name one you love and I’m sure we can all come up with incidences of failure.

    But what’s really telling about your post is that this is the standard Republican method for convincing people that a program that could help them should be shut down– because some “unworthy” people might also be getting help.

    Apparently the only thing worse than seeing your kids go hungry is to see one of “them” eating. Oh, no, a plump person is using food stamps! Shut it down!

    This was one of Saint Ronnie’s favorites. Talk about those “strapping young bucks” on food stamps or the welfare queens in Cadillacs. Better a thousand needy people starve than one unworthy scam the system of a couple of dollars. (Of course this logic never applies to, say, defense contractors or corporate CEOs, all of whose crimes are unique to the individual.) And by some astonishing coincidence, those unworthys almost always turn out to be black. Or maybe Hispanic now — the Republican party has evolved over the years.

  21. PD Shaw says:

    UlyssesUnbound: Great and interesting comment.

  22. UlyssesUnbound says:

    One more thing (I know this was NOT a post about the AmeriCorps re: Foodstamps, so I won’t harp on too much longer).

    As a policy measure, isn’t it cheaper to let AmeriCorps members use foodstamps, rather than increase their stipend? After all, my dollar didn’t go very far because I was in an expensive city. Other AmeriCorps who were in rural parts of SC probably could make it month to month on their monthly stipend, without the help of foodstamps. Therefore, some members may use food stamps, some not at all. But if we increase the stipend, everyone is using that increase.

  23. Drew says:

    We are, Reid. We are now just negotiating the price.

  24. James Joyner says:

    UlyssesUnbound:

    I assumed when you put in that Americorps members were ‘able bodied’ you were implying they could work more. They can’t, or they would.

    No, I was just suggesting that these are people who “need” assistance only because they’ve chosen to take jobs that don’t pay much and that, given that it’s a government program, we ought to pay them a living wage.

    Your explanation that a major point of the program is to experience the full range of poverty lifestyle is, however, intriguing.

  25. Drew says:

    Dear Alex-

    At least here in the Chicagoland area we have screens that show exactly what’s being purchased item by item and,interestingly and parenthetically, I’m surprised that items are identified by method of payment; but sure enough you can look right up there on the screen and see what’s being paid for in cash and what’s being paid for with food stamps. And so despite all these observations about how it’s impossible that this and that aren’t supposed to be purchased with food stamps………………I stand by Groucho……my eyes aren’t that bad.

    As for as your defense of the poor and overweight-and I understand your own battles that you’re fighting..me too…- but please that’s just laughable.

    The high cost and poor nutrition habits of poor people are well documented; read: McDonald’s. We’d be much better served to criticize those decisions than to defend them.

    wr – that’s really pathetic argumentation. I didn’t say anything about shutting anything down. Your rent mind reading skills led you to that simple minded conclusion. My observation is and continues to be solely that these are highly inefficient programs and in fact it’s people like you who defend those inefficiencies that have caused many of the spending problems that exist in the nation today. If you really had the concerns of the poor in mind, you’d probably be in league with me in trying to understand and maximize these efforts. Rather, your blind defense of anything government and anything “for the poor” tells me that you have never really thought this problem through.

  26. James Joyner says:

    The high cost and poor nutrition habits of poor people are well documented; read: McDonald’s. We’d be much better served to criticize those decisions than to defend them.

    McDonald’s is pretty cheap, though, depending on what you order. If your intent is simply to get full, you can spend $3-4 and achieve that with a fairly palatable meal. You’re not going to get chicken breast, sweet potatoes, and broccoli down at the Whole Foods for that. And, obviously, it’s easier to grab Mickey-D’s after a long day of doing manual labor than to shop and then cook a meal.

  27. Drew says:

    James –

    Now put in the denominator in the cost to nutrition ratio.

  28. James Joyner says:

    Now put in the denominator in the cost to nutrition ratio.

    Sure. But that assumes most people — let alone most poor, uneducated people — are thinking about nutrition when they eat. Hell, I’m educated, affluent, and care about my health and still eat way too much red meat and carbs and too few fruits and vegetables, both because of taste and convenience. Oh, and beer.

  29. Sirkowski says:

    Taxe cuts and trickle down, AMIRITE guys?

  30. Drew says:

    “But that assumes most people — let alone most poor, uneducated people — are thinking about nutrition when they eat.”

    Actually, no. It comes back to my original point: despite attempts to justify it, the poor’s cost inefficient eating habits are being subsidized. To ignore this is just unwarranted political correctness,and bad public policy.

  31. UlyssesUnbound says:

    Alex,

    Exactly! Healthier poverty-level citizens are less of a drain on economy (see: Healthcare debate). Despite many of the problems with food stamps, there is a lot of headway being made in many communities to ensure that the use of food stamps is used for food–not edible materials (cheetos spring to mind). The best example would be the many farmers markets that are accepting food stamps.

    Cutting citizens off from foodstamps, as you have shown, only makes the situation worse. Those citizens who have to rely on the nutritionally worst foods end up having trouble holding jobs, their children have even more problems in school, and they end up in the hospital more frequently–where they use the emergency room, on the taxpayers dollar, and become an even bigger drain.

    Give them food stamps, tighten what food can be bought with it. It’s not a perfect solution but its a hell of a lot better than just cutting them off.

  32. Drew says:

    UlyssesUnbound –

    Well, I guess we are at impass. Either I’m a liar, and my own two eyes deceived me, or your technogarble is correct.

  33. An Interested Party says:

    In the interests of not assuming anything…what was the point of mentioning an anecdotal story of seeing some “awfully plump” people supposedly buying alcohol and other “goodies” with food stamps…

  34. …and you learn firsthand why it is important to ensure that people lift themselves out if it.

    Bootstraps? Did I just read a bootstraps argument?