Members of Congress Misrepresent Food Stamp Program and Ignore Its Injustice - The Objective Standard

Yesterday I appeared on the Larry Elder radio show to discuss the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Through Elder, I learned that more than two dozen members of Congress took what they called the SNAP Challenge, through which they protested proposed cuts to the program. As the Huffington Post reported June 13, “To protest nutrition assistance cuts . . . nearly 30 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are limiting their food budgets to what a person gets from food stamps.”

But the “SNAP Challenge” is bogus for several reasons, even on its own terms.

First, as the Heritage Foundation points out, House Republicans proposed a measly

2.5 percent cut to a program that has increased in costs by roughly 100 percent since 2008. Far from deep cuts, the farm bill [which funds SNAP] simply maintains historically high levels of food stamp spending.

The second problem with the SNAP Challenge is that the members of Congress taking the challenge substantially understated how much money recipients of food stamps have available for food. The SNAP Challenge budget is $4.50 per day, but, as the Washington Post reports,

The average monthly benefit for one person is $133.44, which is where the $4.50 a day figure comes from. But note that the name of the program refers to “supplemental” assistance. SNAP is not intended to be the only source of income for food.

According to the USDA, about 75 percent of SNAP participants use their own money, in addition to SNAP benefits, to buy food. That is because the program is designed so that the assumed family contribution to the food budget (which is set at 30 percent of net income after deductions) plus the actual monthly benefit will always equal the maximum benefit.

The maximum benefit for a household of one is $6.67 per day, while the maximum benefit for a household of four, per person, is $5.57 per day.

The third problem with the SNAP Challenge is that it misrepresents what’s possible on a low-income diet. Is it possible to eat nutritiously for less than $5.57 per day? Yes, and I proved it, twice. In 2007, my wife and I ate for a month spending only $2.57 per person per day. Then, in 2009, I tried a different, lower-carb diet and ate for a week for around $4 per day. We bought healthy, simple, relatively inexpensive foods and prepared meals from scratch. As I wrote then, “If I were on a true emergency budget, I'd pick a diet combining elements of the 2007 diet and the low-carb one. I'd buy healthy but low-cost fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, and olive oil along with low-cost grains like brown rice and oats.”

The upshot is that the members of Congress in question substantially misrepresented the magnitude of the proposed cuts, the nature of SNAP, and the availability of low-cost, healthy foods.

Of course, all of these details about SNAP are at best secondary to the fundamental issue: SNAP is immoral because it forcibly seizes the wealth of those who earned it and hands it over to those who did not earn it. The proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights—including property rights—not to coercively transfer wealth from some people to others.

Congress should not only cut SNAP, it should radically cut it—with an eye toward phasing it out. Then, of course, people would remain free to spend their own money on food, they would be free to earn more money, and those who could afford to and wish to would be free to donate to food banks and the like.

Call it the Liberty Challenge.

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Image: The author conducted his own "Food Stamp Challenge."

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