Time for a New Narrative on Food Stamps

Food Stamps (SNAP)

By this time, if you follow politics at all, chances are you’ve heard a lot about the farm bill. Passed Tuesday, this bill represents nearly $1 trillion in new spending, with typical promises for paltry reform over the next decade.

At risk of presumption, the problems with the farm portion are rather obvious. It’s no surprise that 85% of economists from across the ideological spectrum oppose farm subsidies. It seems commonly accepted that the “farm bill” long ago ceased to be a temporary relief for struggling family farmers and has instead become a hefty bonus check for some of the biggest corporate agriculture. For example, the richest farmers get the most subsidies, and just three firms received the most in sugar subsidies last year. And Tuesday’s bill did little to address these issues.

A program so misguided is easy to attack. But unfortunately, the farm portion is a very small part of the “farm” bill. And the other part backs people who want to save the next generation from massive debt into quite a tough corner.

Being seen as anti-poor is a well-known Achilles Heel for conservatives and libertarians. And this debate is no exception. Even though the cuts to food stamps are paltry, – $8 billion over the decade to a program that spends nearly 12 times that much right now – simple numbers don’t stand up well against the narrative of the poor versus the spending slashers.

It’s time for a new narrative.

A recent report identifies who really benefits and lobbies for the status quo on food stamps. Marion Nestle of Food Politics documents just some of these beneficiaries:

  • Groups including the American Beverage Association and the Snack Food Association have lobbied against health-oriented changes to SNAP.

  • Cargill, PepsiCo, and Kroger have also lobbied Congress against SNAP changes.

  • Coca-Cola, the Corn Refiners of America, and Kraft Foods pushed against a recent bill in Florida that would have prevented SNAP purchases of soda and junk food.

  • J.P. Morgan Chase holds contracts in 24 states to administer SNAP benefits.

  • Banks and other private contractors get notable benefits from economic downturns and the related increasing SNAP participation.

In light of the evidence, it’s obvious that the story of food stamps is quite different from the establishment narrative. Crony capitalism and a big-spending Congress have teamed up to ensure this program stays accountability-free and continues to support its true beneficiaries – themselves.

And while Nestle and others perhaps see this tale of cronyism as a reason to move toward more government involvement or funding such as using the model of the Women, Infants, Children (WIC) program, it’s worth noting extreme inefficiencies in such programs, and realizing that the same perverse incentives will exist regardless of tweaks in the program. Crony capitalism is just a fact of life when government spending is so big.

The story of food stamps is not one of people who want to help the poor versus people who don’t. Just like the farm portion, it’s a story of business cronyism that wants to help itself on the backs of the American taxpayer and at the expense of our children’s future.

The national debt and deficits are on track to keep getting worse, and years of big spending continue to harm the economy and make more people dependent on government programs – programs that help big business more than they help the people who need them most.

It’s time to change direction. But we won’t change direction until we change the story.

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