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December 8, 2015

Should Food Stamps Be Restricted to Healthy Food Products?


Several years ago—after robbing a home piggy bank to get enough money to buy a gallon of milk on the way home from work—I was standing behind a lady with two kids in a convenience store checkout line.  She had several items: cookies, ice cream, soft drinks, some candy and a few other products.  And she paid for them with food stamps.  

That didn’t set well with this taxpayer.

Maybe Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, has had a similar experience.  He wants to prohibit Mainers from using food stamps to buy candy and soft drinks

IPI opposes efforts to impose new taxes on those types of products—Berkeley, California, in 2014 became the first to pass a tax on sugary soft drinks.  But society has every right, and often does, limit what people can buy with the money taxpayers provide them.

For example, people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—what we still often refer to as food stamps, even though most use an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card as opposed to “stamps”—are prohibited from using that money for tobacco products.  Of course, some beneficiaries find a way around that restriction, but the restriction makes a statement.


The sugar limitation is promoted as a health issue.  Obesity is more prevalent among low-income women, who are more likely to be in SNAP.  (That correlation between low income and obesity disappears among men, according to the Pew Research Center.)

But there is a bigger policy question involved: Must we make welfare comfortable for recipients? 

One of the reasons for requiring people to do some kind of work for their welfare benefits—a requirement the Obama administration has largely gutted—was to encourage people to get off welfare as soon as possible. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm used to say that welfare should be a safety net, not a hammock.

A SNAP program that restricted purchases to only very healthy foods such as lean meats and raw vegetables might be less attractive.  And like tobacco, it, too, would make a statement.

Yes, people would likely find ways to game the system—for example, by using their own cash to buy the less-healthy products.  But having to jump through hoops might also encourage people to do what it takes to leave the system.

In short, instead of going too far, as some of LePage’s critics have suggested, he may not be going far enough.


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