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Should We Police Food Stamps?

Earlier this week, my colleague Jonathan Tobin wrote about the expansion of the nanny state, this time with the government policing what food stamps recipients can and cannot buy. There is no denying that government food police exist – I don’t need to look further than my hometown of New York City for the proof. Mayor Bloomberg has banned transfats, required restaurants to post their Health Department ratings in their windows, required fast food chains to post their nutritional information on their menus, and the list goes on. I have to disagree with Jonathan, however, on the idea that setting limits on what can be purchased with food stamps by a conservative in the Florida legislature fits into the expansion of nanny state behavior.

The proposed restrictions on food stamps, limiting recipients from buying candy, chips or soda would help eliminate waste and help the program do what it originally set out to do: provide food (not snacks) to the needy. I’m reminded of a post written late last year by a young woman, a college student, who spent two summers working at Walmart. The writer, Christine Rousselle, became a conservative internet sensation writing about how working the register at the low-end retailer reaffirmed her conservative values. She describes incidents she witnessed consistently during the course of her summer job:

People using TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) money to buy such necessities such as earrings, KitKat bars, beer, WWE figurines, and, my personal favorite, a slip n’ slide. TANF money does not have restrictions like food stamps on what can be bought with it.

Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.

Living in New York, I see abuses like these every day. Last week, soon before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night, I ducked into a local market to quickly pick up some last minute items for our Sabbath meals. The market, in addition to stocking basic fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs, also sells a large quantity of specialty imported Russian goods for the large Russian expat community in my neighborhood. In line in front of me stood a man wearing brand new Nike sneakers and a leather jacket, picking out $40 of imported specialty Russian chocolates. Five excruciatingly long minutes later, he paid for all of his items using his food stamps card. Late nights, I see young people at the local corner stores with bloodshot eyes, stocking up on chips and candy, paying for their sugar binges with my tax dollars.

A nutrition program for the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) has strict guidelines on how subsidies from the program must be used, limiting purchases to basic adult food needs (in addition to infant items): bread, meat, fruits and vegetables, cereal, cheese and milk. Any purchases outside of these guidelines must be made with personal funds. Speaking with a woman who receives these funds, I’ve heard the guidelines are clearly explained, with WIC even going to the trouble of sending pictures of items that fit their qualifications.

Do I believe everyone should eat what’s on the WIC list of approved items? Sure. With the correlations between income level and obesity, it seems like a no-brainer to add more whole grains and fruits and vegetables into people’s diets. If the government were out to ban Happy Meals, I would be as outraged as any conservative. With my tax dollars, though, if people claim to be unable to afford basic nutrition, that’s all they should be receiving from the government: basic nutrition. If they want to eat their weight in potato chips and soda, they can do it on their own dime.



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