While today’s America is fiercely divided over ideological differences, a notable exception is how both the Left and the Right buy into similar myths about U.S. social policy.
This is particularly evident in how Americans—and especially those in the economic and media elites—tend to view food stamps (now known as SNAP) benefits, versus how they regard Social Security.
SNAP, many believe, is “welfare,” and the two terms are sometimes even used interchangeably. Despite evidence from a UC Berkeley study released this week that nearly half of U.S. child care workers require some form of public assistance, such as SNAP, to survive, much of the public accepts as fact that people who get SNAP don’t work and don’t want to work. They presume that recipients never help to pay for the program and are essentially mooching off too-generous governmental largess. They even take it for granted that most people who collect the benefits are non-white, when in fact the plurality of SNAP beneficiaries has always been white.
The conclusion these sometimes willfully misinformed individuals reach is that SNAP should not only be difficult to get but that recipients are not responsible enough to handle their own benefits and should be willing to submit to very strict micromanagement in terms of how they both obtain and utilize them.
On the other hand, few Americans equate Social Security payments with welfare—most believe that citizens pay for them during their working life and then simply access that same amount of money during retirement, taking back only what they put into the program.
Using this reasoning, it is no surprise that you would be hard-pressed to find an American that doesn’t believe Social Security payments should be easy to get and that recipients should be able to spend them however they like—whether that be on cases of soda or big-screen TVs.
But the underlying assumptions we have about both programs are just plain wrong.
Most people who collect SNAP benefits work, almost always in low-paying jobs. Therefore, they pay into the program over a lifetime of paying taxes. Few able-bodied citizens get help for more than a year at a time and they usually dip into the program only when they lose their jobs or otherwise can’t make ends meet while working. In fact, 90 percent of adult SNAP recipients with children were employed the year before and the year after obtaining these benefits.
In contrast, many Social Security beneficiaries take out far more than they put in and less frequently continue to work—eventually stopping all employment altogether as they age. According to the Urban Institute, a two-earner couple receiving an average wage—$44,600 per spouse in 2012 dollars—and turning 65 in 2010 would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and can be expected to take out $966,000 in benefits.
And with increasing advances in health care, seniors are often paid for a far longer period than the program was initially designed to provide benefits for, resulting in a much higher cost. This is precisely why we continue the national debate over the long-term solvency of Social Security. Elders who live longer—those who, overall, tend to be wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole—benefit the most.
Consequently, while much of the public and many politicians view SNAP as shameful welfare and Social Security as virtuous social insurance, each, in reality, embodies aspects of both. Yet due to these ungrounded beliefs about the programs, as well as a stubborn refusal by political leaders and the public to closely examine the facts, each are managed very differently by the government.
For example, Social Security benefits are easily available through federal offices where application procedures are standardized nationwide. But because of the insistence of Southern segregationists who ran key congressional committees when SNAP was first authorized in the 1960s, federal food assistance is ultimately controlled by states, which are individually able to place added barriers—different in every state—in the way of applicants. That’s why Social Security payments are usually a breeze to obtain and to maintain, while SNAP benefits require an onerous application process (often mandating piles of paperwork and requiring multiple visits to government offices) to get and to keep. As a result, nearly all individuals eligible for Social Security retirement benefits receive them, whereas more than a quarter of those eligible for SNAP benefits fail to do so.
And once families receive SNAP benefits, they are legally prohibited from spending them on diapers, toilet paper, vitamins, feminine hygiene products, or hot, prepared food, even if that food is the same price or cheaper than the alternatives—since hot food has been deemed a “luxury” by policymakers.
It should also be noted that the United States is the only major industrialized nation to run a food voucher program like SNAP. Other nations (which, for the most part, have less hunger than the United States) choose, instead, to trust low-income families with cash payments, which parents can allocate to food, rent, clothing, or other vital needs as they see fit.
And to make matters worse, many states with conservative governors now require unemployed SNAP recipients to attend often-useless job training programs which force aid recipients to take time away from frequently more productive job searches or educational activities.
This desire to micromanage the lives of poor people dates back a very long time. In medieval Europe, “sumptuary laws” were passed to prevent nonroyalty from wearing fancy looking clothing or eating gourmet food that was determined to be “above their station.” Throughout American history, one of the few things that has always seemed to unite wealthy conservatives and upper-middle-class liberals alike has been proclaiming that poor people should behave more virtuously than they themselves do. Some of the most ardent original proponents of alcohol’s prohibition were progressive, mostly upper and upper-middle class women’s rights advocates (who claimed they wanted to reduce domestic violence among low-income households) and reactionary Ku Klux Klan supporters (who wanted to keep booze away from Catholics and blacks).
So it should come as no surprise that key liberals and conservatives have been teaming up to prevent SNAP recipients from buying soda with their benefit cards. Now, if you really press them (and I do), the vast majority of these anti-soda advocates sheepishly admit that they do, occasionally, drink the sweetened beverages—but that they themselves are “responsible enough” to drink it in limited quantities. These champions of abstinence for the poor defend their choices by claiming that their own sugary drink purchases aren’t subsidized by taxpayers. But every soda in America is subsidized, in one way or another, because both sugar and corn syrup receive direct government support, and soda is delivered over government roads and through government ports and airports.
In 2013, when then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning soda in the SNAP program, those same beverages were being given out for free in City Hall, and at events held at Gracie Mansion (where he did not live, but where he officially entertained). The employees at Bloomberg L.P.—the financial media, stock market data, and analysis company he founded and led—were even entitled to unlimited free sodas at work. Although Bloomberg later proposed a citywide ban on oversize sodas, he stopped short of proposing anything more stringent for the general population. Bloomberg’s attempts to more strictly restrict food purchases for SNAP recipients sent the appalling message to low-income New Yorkers that they were uniquely unsuited to making decisions about what is best for their own bodies.
More recently, right-wing Maine Governor Paul R. LePage has tried to essentially blackmail USDA by threatening to cut off SNAP to all 190,000 Maine residents who desperately need them unless USDA agrees to his request to pick and choose what foods people can obtain in the program.
But beyond the philosophical objections to treating poor people differently than everyone else, it is vital to note that banning certain foods from purchase with SNAP dollars would almost certainly not advance the anti-obesity objectives of the scheme’s proponents. This was confirmed by a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
It is likely that recipients would still use some of their limited non-SNAP food dollars to buy soda. And if you cut Coke from the menu, people with a sweet tooth would just buy other sugar-sweetened products or desserts that are allowed under the plan.
More importantly, there is no evidence that low-income families who receive SNAP benefits shop any less nutritiously than others with similarly low incomes. The problem isn’t that they make poor choices: the problem is that poor people can’t afford to make better choices—or that those healthier choices don’t exist in their neighborhood.
SNAP ban proponents assume that if we just eliminate a few “bad foods” from our diets, we will all be healthier. That’s ridiculous. For all types of people, good nutrition, as well as reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, are also about balance and adopting improved eating and exercise habits from cradle to grave.
A much better approach than banning so-called “bad” foods would be taking far more action to make healthier food affordable and available for struggling families in low-income neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pilot project to allow some online food retailers to accept SNAP benefits is a step in the right direction, and should be expanded. Another positive development is the Obama Administration’s proposed rule that would require stores accepting SNAP benefits to stock healthier food.
It makes far more sense to expect just a little bit more from the companies that receive big government bucks than to further micromanage the lives of the most vulnerable. Let’s start treating all of our citizens who are able to receive help when they need it most—whether they are retiring seniors or struggling working families—with the respect and dignity they deserve.