President Trump recently released his 2019 budget, so we can expect weeks of conservative lawmakers and pundits harping about small government, personal responsibility and freedom of the individual. The Trump budget, after all, isn't a literal budget blueprint so much as a declarative statement of what the White House wants. The budget soaks the usual GOP targets (social welfare programs, the arts and environmental agencies) while throwing fistfuls of money at the military. And while none of that should surprise anyone who has followed the evolution of the Republican Party since the Reagan era, the Trump budget is notable for one particular perversity — its “solution” for dealing with America’s hunger epidemic.
Under the Trump budget, roughly half of America’s poorest citizens will lose their freedom to choose what they eat.
Instead of receiving food stamps to use at grocery stores, eligible Americans would receive a monthly “Harvest Box” containing pre-selected Uncle Sam-approved groceries. All of those groceries would be “shelf-stable,” which is a sanitized way of saying “not fresh.”
The rationale for this approach is cleaving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget in half and funneling the savings towards other projects. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney tried to put a sexy spin on the idea by comparing it to Blue Apron’s home-delivered meal kits, but of course, he left out one crucial detail: Blue Apron customers are allowed to select their meals from a list of options before their next box ships.
As extreme as this sounds — depriving poor people of agency at the dinner table — it’s not exactly a new development for America. Our current food stamp system, allows recipients to buy most groceries, but SNAP benefits can’t be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes and non-food items, such as diapers. (Some states and cities want to add soda and candy to the list of forbidden items.)
These restrictions exemplify the misplaced paternalism that has afflicted our debate about what poor people should be allowed to have. The popular rationale for these restrictions is promoting healthy life choices and upward mobility. It’s the sort of “eat your spinach and you’ll be as strong as Popeye!” logic that you’d explain to a toddler. Except in the case of food stamp recipients, being strong as Popeye means finding gainful employment and bringing in enough income to get off the government dime and earn the freedom to buy whatever you want at the supermarket.
If only climbing out of poverty were as simple as eating your vegetables and avoiding any kind of indulgence. Most Americans would have money leaking out of their ears by now if this sort of moralistic preening was anything more than a fantasy.
Unfortunately, that’s all that the paternalism we see in the Trump budget truly is: garbage moralizing with more roots in religion than reality.
It’s easy to dress up food stamp restrictions as holistic and well-intentioned safeguards, but at the end of the day, the argument for those restrictions still smells like the old Protestant work ethic treatise that a person is only as good and worthy as the fruits of their labor. Since most poor people — even the millions who work — don’t have much to show for their efforts, many of us are fine with depriving the poor of certain freedoms until they “get their act together” enough to move on up the ladder.
And that’s where the case for food stamp paternalism falls apart. Today’s ladder of economic mobility is already missing many rungs and as underreported trends like labor automation and contract hiring continue, the gap between America’s poverty line and prosperity is going to get a lot bigger.
No amount of "clean eating" and virtuous living will help a person of minimal means overcome these structural hurdles. So instead of prolonging the debate about how SNAP benefits should or shouldn’t be used, I’d like to propose a new approach. It could start as a better kind of welfare reform, and expand to accommodate anyone whose livelihood and income prospects are imperiled by fluctuations in the market.
Why not just give poor people cash with no strings attached?
Radical as it will sound to Americans, this idea of “direct giving” is gaining currency around the world. A number of current studies spanning from Finland to the town of Stockton, California are piloting the idea. Programs in Kenya and Manitoba have made a compelling case that poor people generally don’t waste their money on “booze, women, and movies,” as one Republican Senator recently said. They put that money towards life’s essentials, which are never the same for any two people, and will usually include things that others might consider frivolous. And that’s the greatest virtue of direct giving: What’s truly given are agency, respect and realism that America’s current welfare system sorely lacks.
Think of it this way: on paper, you might not need that ice cold beer or slice of cake waiting in your fridge. But in practice, you know that life delivers challenges, disappointments and victories that call for cake or beer. We know that indulgence is as human as abstract thinking.
Take that away from people, and what will we become?