Food stamps and the importance of *doing something*

At Gene Expression I recently put up a series of posts relating to food stamps. For example, the correlates of food stamp utilization by county. I’m really skeptical of the ubiquity of food stamp usage. There are vast swaths of the United States where the majority of children benefit from food stamps. Some statistical analysis suggests that 90% of blacks at age 20 will have benefited from food stamps, while 50% of the general population will have (most of these are transient beneficiaries). But the same groups which tend to use food stamps are also subject to an “epidemic of obesity.” My data analysis shows that it’s clear on the geographical level. Where people use food stamps, there is obesity and type 2 diabetes. Regardless of what people say about “food insecurity” I think these characteristics, copious adipose tissue, and diseases of modernity which emerge due to obesity and overconsumption of sugars, strongly suggest that images of the famished simply doesn’t make sense.

But over the past month or so that I’ve investigated this topic, here’s a typical comment:

To be hungry sometimes is uncomfortable, I know this personally, I am hungry sometimes. Though for me it has to do with the fact that I don’t think that the immediate response to hunger always has to be food to satiate the pangs (I don’t like to eat past a certain hour).

What a way to trivialize other people’s hunger by insinuating that they can’t distinguish between physical hunger and psychological hunger. It’s even more important to distinguish between voluntary hunger and involuntary hunger. Those who don’t have enough to eat may not have the privilege of experiencing psychological hunger.

The italicized are my comments. The general thrust of the response is emotive, dismissive and “how dare you!” Food stamp programs are not a fiscal crisis in this country, but if the targets of this food aid have a tendency toward obesity or diabetes, we need to reassess our presuppositions. Instead of helping those in need, by and large the food stamp program may simply be an adjunct to the interests of a small number of non-profit careerists.

P.S. When I was in college I knew many students who engaged in food stamp fraud. The reality was that they didn’t need food stamps, but they knew that it was very easy to get on the program.

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23 Responses to Food stamps and the importance of *doing something*

  1. Matthew says:

    It seems more likely to me that the culprit is food subsidies that essentially guarantee that the unhealthiest foods (high in calories but low in nutrients) will also be the cheapest. The arguments in Food, Inc. were rather convincing, but even if food subsidies are not the reason behind the correlation between cost and high caloric content, the fact of the matter is that cheap food is bad for you.

  2. Winston says:

    On occasion I’m prompted to think that this website is secretly funded by the Catholic Church, to demonstrate that morality really is impossible without direction from God. Normally it’s the public-policy posts by Heather MacDonald that prompts such heretical thoughts, but today it’s this one. Let’s assume that everything D. Hume has said is accurate – that there is fraud in the food stamp program, that it increases obesity, and all the rest. (I do have to say for the record that there’s something obscene about comments like “if there’s hunger, how come poor people are so fat?” – that old chestnut – and “how come people on welfare have televisions?” – another oldie but goodie.) Strip all that away, and it is uncontestable that some portion of the population needs food stamps to survive with some kind of dignity. That said, it is a mystery (well, not really) why conservatives are endlessly preoccupied with such programs and not, say, the kind of subsidies oil companies receive that easily outweigh programs for the poor, or the totally free-market policies that have so dramatically eroded our middle class – and perhaps increased demand for all those fraudulent food stamps.

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  4. jz says:

    My single-mom sister was a WIC beneficiary. She had such an abundance of cheese, milk, baby food that she froze the extras in her freezer. Perhaps the quantity of food allotted is excessive.

  5. jz says:

    addendum: and in her family of three, two are obese.

  6. Chip Smith says:

    My family received public assistance when I was a kid and I still remember cutting brick-thick slices from those giant blocks of cheese. If the government is going to provide vouchers for food, I’ve always thought it would be wiser to limit the recipients’ options. Fresh produce, canned soup, milk, and potatoes should be sufficiently nutritious (and insufficiently delicious) to keep the pangs at bay without tempting habitual overindulgence.

  7. David Hume says:

    winston has the typical response. instead of engaging the substance, just throw out platitudes and make the critic a Very Bad Person. the reality is that there are three common “facts”:

    1) there is supposedly an “obesity epidemic” among the poor

    2) there is supposedly a major issue with hunger in america among the poor

    3) the two trends are increasing in magnitude

    i have show data that in fact food stamp usage and obesity go hand and hand. the program may do harm, and it may do good. instead of engaging with whether it does harm or good, the prima facie assumption is throwing money is good, period. those who are critical of it are Very Bad People who want nothing good done for the poor.

    instead, i would suggest that the nature of the arguments show that people simply want to feel like they’ve done good, regardless of the efficacy of the program. liberals can see the stupidity of just wanting to “do something” when it comes to foreign intervention, but they are sorely lacking that instinct when it comes to doing something about it.

    this sort of proposition may be a step in the right direction (though i assume it’ll fail).

  8. Winston says:

    Yep, that’s me – typical liberal, full of platitudes. Unlike conservatives who see things as they really are. Well, David, every single one of the contributors at the site you linked to said that food stamps were necessary, though they differed on how their use might lead to better nutrition. And the last contributor wrote this: “To understand the problem on a more personal level, my partner and I lived it: for a month. We ate according to the average SNAP allotment, and contributed the suggested amount of personal income as well. We even followed the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan” and bought only food listed on its menu plan; we ran out of food before the end of the month.
    What we learned about food stamps was at odds with everything we had heard. For instance, while many people think that the poor are duping the system, the actual rate of fraud is only 2 to 4 percent. The government has mostly settled the controversy over what types of foods people should buy, and these issues only serve as distractions. The real challenges facing SNAP are mostly at the state and local levels.

    Where we live in San Diego, only 29 percent of those who are eligible for benefits are receiving them, the worst rate for an urban area in the country. The application process is complex, intrusive and humiliating. The average applicant has to make five trips to a center, have every adult in the home fingerprinted, and is subject to home searches by the district attorney’s office.

    The irony is that these costs put a drain on the economic boost that food stamp funds give to the economy. Every dollar of food stamps spent generates $1.84 in economic activity, which means that since our county is not getting benefits to those who need them, we’ve lost over $250 million this year. For California, that’s a $3-million loss in potential tax revenue. People on food stamps know what is healthy and what isn’t. But this doesn’t help them unless local governments are doing everything they can to ensure that those who are eligible are getting access to the benefits they so desperately need.” Somehow this material didn’t make it into your post. Probably because it’s filled with liberal platitudes. Or perhaps – just maybe – because it doesn’t confirm conservative platitudes?

  9. Susan says:


    I have to disagree, heartily, that junk food is cheaper than real food. I just went to the grocery store and picked up a pound of pears ($1.48), a ten-ounce bag of fresh spinach ($1.50), a five-pound bag of apples ($1.50), a pound of boneless skinless chicken breasts ($2.48), and a five-pound bag of potatoes ($2.00). So my total expenditure was $8.86.

    If, on the other hand, I’d bought a Swanson Hungry Man dinner, the induisrial-sized box of Hostess Ho-Hos, 2 boxes of Count Chocula Cereal, and a bag of potato chips, I’d have spent about $20.00. And for what? Crap.

    If you’re not in a hurry, it’s fascinating to stand in a supermarket check-out line and look at what different types of people buy.

  10. Susan says:

    I meant “industrial-sized.” Damn. Typos always spoil a joke.

  11. Caledonian says:

    Working as a cashier in a relatively high-end grocery store, I regularly saw people buying Perrier and sushi with EBT (what was once “food stamps”) money. And people making WIC purchases who then turned around and bought carts full of prepared foods and processed garbage.

    Maybe I only saw the exceptions, or maybe there is widespread misuse of food stamp money. IMO EBT funds should only be able to purchase ingredients and produce – no prepared foods, no processed and boxed meals, no bottled water (imported or otherwise).

  12. David Hume says:

    People on food stamps know what is healthy and what isn’t.

    this is the kind of thing that i find totally ridiculous. the average american doesn’t know how to shop for healthy food, period. why should the people on food stamps be more gifted with discernment? there’s a large cresting wave of literature on the way the food industry hooks into our cognitive biases and preferences, and how this might lead to obesity. and yet simultaneously, the poor on food stamps are rational health utility maximizers…..

  13. John says:

    Anyone can get food stamps if:

    Their BMI is 18 or less.
    Their cholesterol level is 160 or less.

    Government weigh-ins and blood tests every 2 months.

    Problem solved!

  14. Asher says:

    I cannot understand why we want people who require public assistance for basic needs to live lives free of any shame. Such lives are often, but not always, fundamentally ones lacking dignity and pretending otherwise is simply hypocrisy.

  15. John :


    Anyone can get food stamps if:
    Their BMI is 18 or less.
    Their cholesterol level is 160 or less.
    Government weigh-ins and blood tests every 2 months.
    Problem solved!

    I’m 5′ 2″ and weigh 114. A BMI of 18 would be about 98 pounds for my height. I’d like to see that person in a hospital, possibly for some condition or disease causing massive weight loss.

    More to the point, people in a normal weight range can have trouble affording food, too.

  16. Donna B. says:

    According to the USDA, SNAP provides supplements to 31 million people. That’s around 10% of the US population, yet (if I’ve read the recent percentages correctly) near 30% of the population is obese.

    If we were to assume that all SNAP recipients are obese, that still leaves 20% of non-SNAP recipients as also obese.

    Now we should consider that 49% of all SNAP recipients are under the age of 18. AND that less that 18% of U.S. citizens under the age of 18 are overweight.

    Is is reasonable to assume that all SNAP recipients are obese? Is is reasonable to assume that even 1/2 of them are, considering that ‘only’ 30% of the population as a whole is?

    Also (according to Wikipedia) 25% of the U.S. population is under the age of 20. I grant that those above the age of 15 should be contributing to their keep, and that those above 18 should be responsible entirely, but I’m not going to spend the time to Google further. Can we compromise on a figure of 20% of the population being of an age dependent on their elders to supply the majority of their food?

    I’ll leave the mathematics to others, but it seems to me that most of the obese population is not on SNAP, even though they may live in the same geographic areas as the most of our nation’s obese population does.

    And since I’m no mathematical genius, I look forward to y’all telling me why I’m wrong.

  17. Le Mur says:

    Every dollar of food stamps spent generates $1.84 in economic activity, which means that since our county is not getting benefits to those who need them, we’ve lost over $250 million this year.

    I’m pretty sure that really means that someone (guess who) is paying $1.84 for $1 worth of food, and that someone (guess who) saved $250 million, not “lost” it as in “we lost a million dollars just this month because nobody gave us a million dollars this month.”

  18. Ethan says:

    Yes that $1:1.84 figure is nuts, a religious number. On the other hand since the claim is that “every dollar” returns $1.84, the budget can easily be balanced by stuffing people like pate geese.

  19. biologist says:

    For what it’s worth — (adult) humans can survive and even thrive on a calorically restricted diet for years. (The most recent long term study I’ve read was for 2 years.) At least the preliminary evidence suggests that CR improves metabolic risk factors and may even slow aging. CR shouldn’t be too extreme but a reduction of caloric intake to say 75% of basal levels would do us all a lot of good.

    I’m not sure a society-wide experiment of this type is a good idea, but it’s worth considering that the logic of helping people who are in need could extend to helping them by giving them a health-boosting CR diet.

  20. JB says:

    Healthy food can be cheap or expensive (tho if cheap, may require knowledge of cooking and time to cook). Bad food can be cheap or expensive. The problem is that we (and especially kids and teens) have attitudes about cheap, healthy food (and even expensive, healthy food) that are driven by our peers and by advertising. We want the soda and chips and Big Macs because that’s what our friends and TV have told us we’ll like. Also, we’ve come to believe that we should get to eat our favorite foods at every meal and snack.

  21. Don Kenner says:

    Winston said: “I do have to say for the record that there’s something obscene about comments like “if there’s hunger, how come poor people are so fat?” – that old chestnut – and “how come people on welfare have televisions?” – another oldie but goodie.)”

    What evil, insensitive people like myself usually ask is “why do so many people on assistance have cable TV?” It’s a valid question. Same with cell phones. I know many working people (many in education) who don’t have cable TV or cell phones. They make choices. Why can’t the wretched underclass make a few hard choices?

    Let me emphasize just how evil I am: people who pay for cable or cell phones but don’t purchase necessities for their kids are scum.

    And if they do this with my money they are worse than scum.

    Obscene enough for you?

  22. Craig says:

    The supermarket where I used to shop caters, due to proximity, to a high number of WIC recipients. Many times I was stuck in line behind someone using the coupons to buy shopping cart loads of food (often featuring things like frozen waffles). Every single time the shopper was obese. Not just fat. Obese.

    Anecdotal, I know. But some things are just so obvious.

  23. Chris says:

    You all are ridiculous. Do you think that people on foodstamps have the time to prepare gourmet meals from fresh ingredients? Most people on foodstamps are the “working poor” who make minimum wage while supporting and caring for children or the elderly, leaving little time for food prep. I’m a full-time graduate student, work 20 hours a week, and am the sole caretaker of my 10 month old son since my soon-to-be-ex-husband moved out several months ago. I’m on foodstamps and, yes, I eat crap. Lots and lots and lots of processed food. And I don’t like it. But after putting in a full day of work, school, and childcare (up before 5 am and in bed around 11), I barely have the time or energy to warm up a Hot Pocket, let alone dice up some freakin’ veggies and whip up a healthy stir-fry. Stop insulting people you’ve never met and assuming that we’re all scam artists, “illegals” cheating the system, or lazy bums. Walk a mile . . . .

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