You Can Eat Whatever You Want

Mark Bittman is apparently a fan of Republican state senator Ronda Storms, who wants to prevent food stamp recipients from buying junk food:

When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food. […]

Yet she makes sense. “It’s just bad public policy to allow unfettered access to all kinds of food,” she told me over the phone. “Why should we cut all of these programs and continue to pay for people to use food stamps to buy potato chips, Oreos and Mountain Dew? The goal is to feed good food to hungry people.”

Bittman goes on to make the argument against added sugar, and describe the nutritional worthlessness of foods that contain it. But that’s not the issue. Whether or not certain foods contain bad things is secondary to the question of whether we should direct the spending habits of people who receive government assistance.

I’m not sure that we should. For starters, there’s no evidence to show that food stamp recipients are worse (or better) than non-recipients when it comes to eating habits. Odds are good that people who use food stamps will spend them in ways similar to people who don’t use them. More importantly, the fact that you receive federal assistance doesn’t mean you forfeit the right to make choices as an adult.

We also don’t demand this of anyone else who receives government benefits, especially if those benefits—like tax deductions—are claimed mostly by middle-income Americans. Indeed, when combined with the ongoing effort to force drug tests and other requirements on the recipients of federal aid, the entire enterprise seems like a deliberate push to humiliate people who take help from the government, even if that’s not the intent.

For my part, that we even have this debate is just another point in favor of direct cash payments to people who need government aid. Recipients know what they need to get their lives back on track, and while some abuse is inevitable, it’s a small price for a system that doesn’t subject needy people to the suspicion we reserve for inmates and felons.