SNAP Benefits, Incentives, and Reform

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
SNAP and History

Interesting piece in the local news: Alaska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, were distributed last Tuesday, August 1st. Unlike most states, Alaska’s population is low enough for the state to fund every recipient on the same day. About 12 percent of Alaska’s population receives SNAP benefits, averaging $271 per month. But there’s a problem: The incentives in this program all run the wrong way.

The history of these kinds of welfare programs runs back a long, long way. Imperial Rome had a program called the Cura Annonae (“care of Annona”) in which a corn (grain) dole was given out to Rome’s adult male citizens. Here in the US, the SNAP, or food stamp program, began in 1939 with the issuance of actual coupons – thus the term “food stamp” and continues today with the use of unobtrusive EBT cards. The program, like all welfare programs, has always been ripe for fraud. And the program is expensive:

In fiscal 2022, the government spent $119.4 billion on SNAP. Some $113.9 billion went to benefits while $5.5 billion went to administrative and other expenses.

There’s a better way to do this. The key? Incentives.

SNAP and Incentives

It is not the proper role of government to shield people from the consequences of their bad decisions. There will always be a need for a modern, compassionate, prosperous society to care for the truly helpless, such as people disabled through no fault of their own, children with no adults to care for them, or people who, due to changing economic conditions or vagaries in the business cycle, are temporarily without income, and so forth.  But the lazy, the indigent, the irresponsible – they have no moral claim on the fruits of the labor of the industrious.

Government, and only government, has the power to tax – to claim a portion of your resources with force of law, with the implied threat of armed force if you try to abstain. In our age of ever-increasing welfare entitlements, that government has claimed a portion of every taxpayer’s proceeds toward just such a shield – requiring the industrious to toil longer and harder to support the indigent.

To add to that – yes, there should be some stigma attached to taking a handout from the taxpayers. For food stamps, for example, here are some conditions recipients should face:

  • Do away with the EBT cards.  Food stamps should be a variation on their original form – large, paper, clearly marked “Food Assistance Voucher.”
  • Vouchers should be limited to only certain items.  Bulk rice, beans, potatoes, lean chicken, ground beef, and so on.  No prepared foods, no frozen foods, no soda pop, no candy.  And for those who cry, “You can’t tell people what they can and can’t eat,” the only reply is, “If they are spending other people’s money, we sure as hell can.”
  • Locations should likewise be strictly limited. No convenience stores, no oven-ready pizza places, no premium meat shops.  Only traditional grocery stores – Safeway, Kroger, Super Walmarts, and the like.
  • Lifetime limits on the healthy-bodied should be imposed. The actual limit would be up for negotiation (and would probably change often), but a two-year lifetime limit of benefits draw seems reasonable.
  • Flatten out the benefit ramp some if necessary, so people re-entering the workplace aren’t suddenly dropped off the program; this decreases the incentive to transition back to the workplace.
  • As long as any adult is drawing benefits, impose a monthly drug/alcohol blood or urine test as a condition of enrollment. If one can afford drugs or booze, they can afford food.
SNAP and Reform

Ideally, programs like these would be handled by private charities. Churches have, historically, been very effective at handling charities. But at the moment, the government is involved and probably will be for a while. There’s some history: The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was controversial at the time, but it took some steps in the right direction, including lifetime limits on benefits and work requirements for able-bodied adults. Much of that law has been undone, but a conservative, liberty-minded ruling party (it’s unclear at this point whether the GOP deserves that label) could start moving things back down that path.

Incentives matter. There’s no reason why being on welfare shouldn’t carry a little bit of the stigma it once had. The other side of that coin, after all, is pride in self-sufficiency, an attribute that too much of today’s society lacks.


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