“A Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.”
That’s how Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney described the Trump administration’s latest proposal to slash funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food aid to low-income families.
The government would make up the difference by providing SNAP households that receive more than $90 per month in aid (roughly 38 million people) with “America’s Harvest Box” instead — an assortment of shelf-stable goods such as peanut butter, pasta and canned meat.
The proposal has elicited much anger and eye-rolling, exactly as it deserves. Why? Because it combines two of the most infuriating characteristics of Trumpian — and Republican more generally — policymaking: a fetish for running everything “like a business” and a total disregard for human dignity.
Let’s start with the first — the Trump administration’s facile fascination with the worst parts of the Silicon Valley mind-set.
There’s a reason the framing of “Uber — but for X!” is generally deployed as a joke. Too often, a fetish for “optimization” really means applying oversimplified faux solutions to extremely complex problems. The desire for “disruption” (Jared Kushner’s mandate, remember?) can end up replacing functional programs with new, dysfunctional ones that only create worse complications.
The Harvest Box budget proposal is a perfect example. For one thing, low-income families need more access to fresh produce and healthy foods, not less. An overreliance on packaged foods already contributes to the wide gap in diet quality and health outcomes between low-income and wealthier Americans. And in low-income areas that already struggle to attract and sustain grocery stores and other businesses, spending enabled by SNAP and EBT has helped spur development. Eliminating the ability of residents to make purchases at local establishments will cramp commerce and worsen economic decline.
And by the way: Despite its Silicon Valley pedigree, Blue Apron has been on the downturn since its initial public offering last June. It struggles with ingredient shortages, shipping costs and, most important, a failure to retain customers. Perhaps the Trump administration’s Harvest Box will have the advantage there, as it will essentially force its SNAP-recipient subscribers to take their canned-goods-in-a-box or go hungry.
Can’t you just taste the freedom?
Speaking of freedom, the lack thereof is the more pernicious problem this new budget proposal presents. The willingness to patronize and otherize American citizens has been a staple of a number of Trump administration policies (hello, immigrant crime memo!), but this is a standout.
Republicans have already intimated that they would like to ramp up the work requirements attached to receiving welfare and medical aid. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is moving to institute drug tests for food stamp recipients. But the Harvest Box proposal takes the dignity out of seemingly the only dignified benefit our safety net still retains: the ability to decide for oneself what one needs, to exercise a modicum of choice, to maintain at least a slight sense of independence even when circumstances are hard.
Blogger Simcha Fisher wrote brilliantly on what meaning this can hold in her piece “The Day I Bought Steak With My Food Stamps”:
[Food stamp recipients] may have tried to get ahead by getting a second or third, minimum wage job working overnight at a gas station, or sweeping floors at the tampon factory, and discovered that their food stamps are immediately cut by exactly the amount they bring home. …
They may hear that they should somehow miraculously vault over a lifetime of the degradations of generational poverty and just … be better. Be self-sufficient. Be a completely different kind of person out of sheer will power. …
And they may get their monthly benefits and think, “Screw it, I’m gonna get something I want for a change.” They may buy themselves a freaking steak. And they may not care if you think they deserve it or not.
A sense of agency is essential to human flourishing, and dignity should be every citizen’s due. It’s disappointing that for all its talk of restoring America’s pride, this administration so clearly disagrees. SNAP recipients don’t need more patronizing regulations handed down from a command-and-control administration. Is it too much to ask that the government help care for its neediest citizens but also let people choose their own food?
When it comes down to it, the Harvest Box is a proposal bad enough to be insulting. But it doesn’t come as much of a surprise: It reflects this administration’s abhorrent values through and through.