A recent New York Times article on what families on SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps) consume got the story very wrong, as various commentators, including the Times’ public editor, have pointed out. A quick look at the article’s headline (“In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda”), the accompanying photo of a shopping cart filled with mostly soda, and misconstrued numbers from the new research on which the article was based may have led some readers to the mistaken belief that families that use food stamps buy very different, and nutritionally much worse, food than households that don’t use food stamps.
In reality, here’s the study’s headline finding: “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.” A related finding — one that reflects an important truth that comes out of the Times piece — was: “Less healthy food items were common purchases for both SNAP and non-SNAP households.” American diets could surely use some improvement. But the improvement mechanism the Times’ reporting discussed — paternalistic bans on the types of food low-income people are allowed to buy with food stamps — is the wrong way to promote healthier eating.
First, as Matt Bruenig has argued, the logical basis for this kind of selective paternalism is flimsy. The ostensible rationale for banning soda for SNAP recipients is that it’s unhealthy. But soda is just as unhealthy for households that don’t receive SNAP benefits, as are many other food items that high-income people consume. If we think banning unhealthy things is appropriate, shouldn’t we ban soda usage for everyone, not just for low-income people?
Of course, those who would impose such bans on SNAP recipients argue that the difference is that taxpayers are subsidizing SNAP purchases, giving all of us the right to a say in the food SNAP recipients buy. But the tax code subsidizes all kinds of spending. Should the rest of us be able to weigh in on the home purchases of those claiming the mortgage interest deduction?
And talk about your “nanny state!” The push to regulate what poor people eat should be anathema not just to progressives, but also to any true conservative or libertarian.
Second, low-income people, particularly people of color and those living in rural areas, lack access to healthy food options. A 2010 review of the research on food availability found that low-income communities tended to have fewer supermarkets and fewer “healthy, high quality foods in nearby stores.” Even when a lack of transportation options isn’t limiting their ability to locate better food sources, low-income people may struggle to afford healthier items.
The simplest, most sensible solution to promote healthier eating is to solve these access issues. In the SNAP program, that means boosting benefits, as new research by economists Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher recently illustrated.
Anderson and Butcher analyzed the relationship between SNAP benefits and both food spending and food-related activities. As the figure below shows, they estimate that a $30 boost to SNAP benefits would increase vegetable consumption by about 1.5 percent, increase the time spent on food shopping and preparation by 2.5 and 3.5 percent, respectively, and decrease fast food consumption by about 2.5 percent.
These results square with quasi-experimental research about SNAP’s long-term benefits. When adults who received SNAP as children are compared to otherwise similar adults who did not, the adults who grew up with SNAP benefits were less likely to suffer from stunted growth or heart disease, and much less likely to be obese (see graph below).
When it comes to promoting healthy eating, in other words, the conclusion we should draw about SNAP echoes what we know in general: The program works. Strengthening it by boosting benefits would make it even more effective. Paternalistic bans based in stereotypes about the poor won’t.