Stop Punishing the Poor

Tom PhilpottLast week, Tom Philpott wrote a really interesting article over at Mother Jones, People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us. It references a number of studies that back up this claim. And it isn’t surprising. I know when I’m hungry, the last thing I want is a candy bar. Those are things that people buy when they have the rest of their nutritional needs taken care of.

The fact that we assume that poor people eat poorly is just like assuming that African Americans smoke more cannabis, “I knew this black guy and all he did was smoke pot!” Of course, African Americans actually use cannabis a bit less than whites. But once a stereotype is formed, people filter data so it fits the narrative of the stereotype. I’m sure we’ve all seen people purchasing junk with a SNAP card. But that proves nothing. And think about it: is it something so common that you don’t even notice it? Or is it something that is rare enough that it sticks out? In my case, it is the latter.

What’s more, the issue is not whether people on food stamps are perfect consumers. The question is whether they are reasonable consumers. And the studies indicate that they are better than average. But an even better question is why we are so hung up on the issue at all. Philpott correctly noted, “No one denies me the occasional candy bar or Coke; why would I feel entitled to exert that kind of control over poor people?” Don’t worry: I am well aware what most people would say in response to that, “Because they aren’t paying!”

Except: that isn’t true. I’m so tired of this ridiculous notion that people have about government programs. Every person on Social Security claims that they deserve their benefits because they paid. But then they will claim that poor people didn’t pay for their SNAP benefits. That’s a total distortion of reality. We all pay taxes to the government and we all get benefits from the government. That’s how it works. And a rich person is being served by the safety net just as a poor person is, the same way people with insurance — whether healthy or sick — are being served by it.

The main thing about welfare in the United States is that we want to make the poor feel bad about any help that they are getting. When we help more affluent people, we don’t do that. In fact, we go out of our way to hide the fact that they are even getting welfare. Every year, the government pays my sister thousands of dollars toward her house in the form of the mortgage interest deduction. Yet my sister — and maybe even you, if you haven’t been reading me regularly — doesn’t think of this as welfare. And why should she? The program is designed so that people like my sister don’t feel that they are getting a handout.

But a handout they are getting! As I discussed a couple of years ago in Fixing the Unfair Mortgage Interest Deduction, this welfare program costs the federal government $70 billion per year. This is roughly the same price as the entire SNAP program. People who want to micromanage the nutrition of food stamp recipients really need to ask themselves why they don’t want to micromanage the housing choices of people who are benefiting from the mortgage interest deduction.

Really, it all comes down to the fact that people getting food stamps are poor. Now I don’t think that the average American looks down on the poor any more than they look down on African Americans. But it is now embarrassing for people when they explicitly talk about African Americans as if they were lower forms of life. But there are no norms that stop people from speaking about the poor as though they are lesser people or children who must be taught the basics of life. In fact, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. The Ayn Rand belief that capitalism is perfect and gives people exactly the amount of money they are worth is usually presented as in, “Mark Cuban deserves his billions.” But the other side of that is even worse, “The poor deserve their poverty.” And that’s something that you can hear any day on Fox News or CNBC. It needs to stop.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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