Monday, July 08, 2013

Believe it or Not, People Eat More Than Once Per Year

Charles Lane proposes abolishing "the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps", and transferring the funds to other programs,
If the working poor’s current share of food stamps went instead to increase the earned-income tax credit and expand eligibility for it, Republicans and Democrats would have less to argue about. The tax credit is a wage supplement, delivered through the income tax system, widely considered one of the most successful federal programs at encouraging work and eliminating poverty. It has also enjoyed consistent bipartisan backing.
The problem with this, and I'm a bit surprised that it even needs to be said, is that an additional amount added to your tax refund (if you qualify), many months into the future, doesn't fill the refrigerator.

Lane asserts that he would effectively prevent people hit by an economic downturn from receiving food assistance, but fancies that by compelling "Congress [] to distribute the SNAP budget among other programs for the poor, for which many SNAP recipients also qualify", part of that money "would go to an expanded and more generous unemployment insurance program". Except that nothing in his proposed distribution to "other programs for the poor" compels that result, and unemployment insurance programs are state-based. Frankly, if the law abolishing food stamps gets down to the level of specifying how the money is to be "redistributed", mandating a certain level of federal funding for state unemployment insurance programs, mandating that states actually apply that money to increased befits sufficient to make up for the loss of food assistance, his cure sounds like a regulatory nightmare. And that's before we get to the fact that while SNAP is means tested, programs like unemployment insurance and Social Security retirement are not. When Lane asserts, "For example, a third of the seniors living on food stamps also get Supplemental Security Income (SSI)", which is a means tested program, the question arises, what about the other two thirds?

The fundamental objection to SNAP is not that it doesn't help the categories of people, "low-income people who are either working, jobless through no fault of their own, elderly or disabled", whom Lane sees as the "deserving poor" - although of itself, that assertion makes it appear that part of Lane's goal in this proposal is to reduce benefits to people he sees as "jobless through [some] fault of their own" - it's the notion that "they" are taking from "us". That can be a nebulous population of "undeserving poor", the apparent actual target's of Lane's proposal, but let's not understate the degree to which the opposition is driven by demagoguery involving confabulated "Cadillac-driving welfare queens" and "Young bucks buying T-bone steaks". You can easily find opponents of any number of means-tested government programs who object that other people don't deserve the same benefits, with no thought given to the fact that most critics of the same programs would place them squarely in the "undeserving" category.

If Lane wants to propose that aid to the poor be simplified, and transitioned into more of a cash-based system, I can get on board with that. We certainly have the technology to distribute cash aid efficiently, and could consolidate what are presently monthly payments of cash through a variety of social welfare programs into weekly or even daily transfers - no more waiting until the next month rolls around to buy the groceries, you'll have money in the morning. We could add to that a "tough lesssons" provision - that the government can vendor rent and utility payments on behalf of somebody who receives public assistance but if they choose instead to take the cash and then fail to pay their bills they're "on their own". Of course, as a society we're generally too paternalistic to do the former, which is why we have programs like SNAP in the first place - so people can't spend money on the "wrong things" - and are generally not willing to do the latter because we don't like the specter of people on public assistance, and even less households full of children, living without heat or water, or evicted for nonpayment of rent. Frankly, most recipients of public assistance can handle the responsibility, and while we do have to be cautious about the fallout on families when, say, dad spends the household budget on crack, we don't do much to inculcate responsibility in the rest of the recipients when we insulate the adults in a household from the consequences of their bad financial choices.

Lane seems to be proposing an odd, circuitous path to take money from a population he sees as the undeserving poor, and transferring that money to the more deserving poor. The biggest problem with his proposal is that both groups need to eat, and starving one group to give the other a larger annual tax credit won't help either of them.

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