When I saw The Wall Street Journal headline — “Food Stamps Shouldn’t Pay for Junk” — I wasn’t the least bit surprised. The idea that the food stamp program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — subsidizes the bad decisions and destructive lifestyles of the poor is an old conservative meme, as this 1986 Los Angeles Times article about Ronald Reagan notes:
Reagan often tells anecdotes that suggest the poor are taking advantage of government programs, and during his 1980 election campaign he was widely quoted as telling a story about a welfare recipient who bought a bottle of vodka with change from food stamps.
But then I looked at the byline, and it wasn’t some familiar right-wing entitlement reformer or culture warrior, but “Moby.” Being a baby-boomer, I wondered initially if this was the pseudonym for some survivor of the fine 1960s psychedelic band Moby Grape, but a trip to Wikipedia instructed me otherwise — apparently this op-ed was written by a vegan electronic musician (birth name: Richard Melville Hall) whose commercial peak was about two decades ago.
Equipped superficially to examine Mr. Moby’s op-ed objectively, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he has standing, as a former food-stamp recipient himself, to comment on the program’s various provisions. And he’s hardly buying into the general conservative case for “reforming” SNAP; he goes out of his way, for example, to denigrate the idea of making SNAP’s work requirements harsher.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Moby is engaging in liberal paternalism in suggesting that recipients should be severely restricted in the items they can buy with their benefits. Let’s just say that, like the third single from his ninth studio album, Wait for Me, it is a “mistake”:
SNAP rules allow stores to distribute candy, soda, cheese products, energy drinks, processed meats and lots of other items that end up seriously compromising the health of SNAP recipients …
The food industry pushes the notion that poor people demand junk food and will complain if SNAP cuts them off. In reality, parents like my mother take pride in doing the best they can for their families. Being poor can involve shame, as well as a commensurate longing for pride. Nothing delivers a greater sense of pride than helping your children succeed and doing your best to see that they grow up healthy.
There’s a rather large logical gap here, insofar as no one is forcing SNAP recipients to buy unhealthy food (as an animal rights activist and vegan, perhaps Moby more generally dislikes the idea of letting people eat what they want). But beyond that, Moby is fishing in troubled waters, particularly when he makes the argument that the “junk food” SNAP subsidizes is more expensive than “cheap, healthy foods like beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains.”
As he apparently knows, SNAP is up for reauthorization this year as part of a proposed new farm bill: “Right now, a congressional arm-wrestling match is pitting those who want to preserve funding for SNAP against those who want to gut it,” he says. The latter camp loves evidence that SNAP is wasteful. And the former camp is heavily composed of those who represent the farmers and retailers who like the current wide-open scope of SNAP just fine. Moby’s argument will enthuse the former and chill the latter.
You can say that’s a cynical way of looking at it. But from the very beginning, the food-stamp program was less of a “nutrition” initiative than a form of income maintenance for the poor designed cleverly to enlist political support from rural interests normally less than avid to support anti-poverty efforts. Once the benefits were in their hands, said poor people were generally (within limits, of course) trusted to feed themselves.
Once you head down the slippery slope of aggressive paternalism, liberal or conservative, it’s hard to stop before you reach a ditch and begin doubting the whole enterprise. Moby confidently expresses the belief that “[t]he U.S. can have healthier people, lower health-care costs, and a trimmer budget at the same time.” He might want to persuade SNAP recipients to improve their diets without going through the intermediary of the Congress of the United States.