If this proposed budget comes to pass, food stamp recipients will receive approximately half their benefits in the form of boxed food deliveries selected and purchased for them by the government. The amount on their card they could use at a store or farmers market to select their own food would be halved. The goal is to suggest that poor people need to have their food chosen for them in order to save money — with the real goal being to cut spending on the program.
The related notion that those needing financial help — whether in the form of government benefits or charity — simply don’t know how to budget or prioritize their spending is an idea that’s been around for a long time. This myth has taken on a renewed life in our Second Gilded Age, where even well-intentioned people don’t seem to want to admit how much financial pressure a substantial number of Americans face on a daily basis.
This has been an issue in the food stamp program for some time. As Eric Levitz points out: “In recent years, Republican lawmakers in many states (including New York) have introduced legislation barring food-stamps recipients from using their benefits to purchase lobster, expensive steak, decorated cakes, soda, or other indulgences.”
This way of thought — that the poor among us simply don’t spend their limited funds correctly — is all too often amplified by the media. Last year, the New York Times published an article with the headline “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.” It argued that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — i.e., food stamps — recipients purchased significantly more soda than better heeled households. As a subsequent correction showed, the relevant category of sweetened drinks included soda, but also fruit juice and energy drinks. And the finding wasn’t particularly significant: SNAP households devoted 9.3 percent of their food spending to the category, while households that did not receive food stamps spent 7.1 percent on the sweetened beverages.
It’s not just food stamps. On a higher income level, this spending myth also underlies everything from the idea that millennials can’t afford to buy homes not because of increasing housing prices or student loan debt, but because they are wasting their limited funds on avocado toast, to the belief that Americans are shifting funds they should put in 401(k)s into their Starbucks budget instead. It turns up in the health-care debate, too: most famously when a high profile House Republican claimed — but quickly backtracked in the face of a fierce firestorm — that Americans were choosing to spend money on iPhones instead of health insurance.
These myths span the political spectrum. But they have significantly more resonance on the right, where the idea that people are fully in control of their wealth or poverty holds the most sway.
At times, the Trump administration has presented the slashing of benefits for the needy as a way of doing them a favor. The stated reason for the administration’s approval earlier this year of Kentucky and Indiana’s request to impose work requirements on their able-bodied, adult Medicaid recipients rests on the faulty logic that they are simply trying to extend those needing help a helping hand.
When Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, penned a letter to governors arguing for work requirements, she claimed people who are unemployed are more likely to suffer from depression and ill health, not to mention die sooner than their employed peers. “A growing body of evidence suggests that targeting certain health determinants, including productive work and community engagement, may improve health outcomes,” the letter reads.
This is all a farce. When it comes to food stamps, the budget would cut $17.2 billion from the program in 2019 at the same time it suddenly seemingly demanded that people benefiting from the program eat whatever is provided to them.
The irony here is that, as proposed, the America’s Harvest Box, should it ever come to pass, would likely result in many of its recipients eating less nutritious food than they would select on their own. The box would not include fresh produce or meat, and instead would offer up non-perishable options such as dried pasta, peanut butter, shelf-stable milk, and canned fruits, meats and vegetables. (No word if Spam is included.)
Clearly taking the lead from Trump, who all too often acts as though if you repeat an untruth, it will magically become true, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney called this “a Blue Apron-type program.”
Au contraire. This week, among other things, Blue Apron, the service that delivers prepped and pre-cut food for meals so cooking is easier and less time consuming, is offering up the needed ingredients to make fresh Beef Medallions & Scallion Salsa Verde and Basil Pesto and Broccoli subs. The meat and vegetables are not packed in a sodium soaked can.
In this case, it seems, it’s Trump and his Republican administration who are the nanny state types.