There has been quite lot of talk recently about what SNAP beneficiaries choose to buy with their benefits. The conversation has particularly focused on condemning the purchase of items like soda and sweetened drinks. There is no question that the article - which reignited this debate over whether or not SNAP beneficiaries should be able to buy what they want - manipulated and misrepresented data in order to perpetuate an unfavorable narrative. As a result, many organizations fired back in an attempt to set the record straight, arguing that the findings of the USDA report actually conclude that “SNAP recipients and other households generally make the same purchases.”
It is important that we are aware of these attempts to delegitimize a program that helps keep millions of Americans from going hungry. The debates over SNAP purchases represent the paternalistic nature of our safety net system, and it shifts the public discussion from open access to strict oversight. We cannot support those aiming to escape poverty by dictating what they can and cannot do, and in a society that values free choice that includes allowing people to choose what they want to buy.
SNAP is often one of the most vilified public programs in the country, and this misrepresentation of data is becoming more common with regard to this program. In January of 2017, a report began circulating that claimed $70 million of SNAP money has been fraudulently spent. Even if we accept this premise - which many observers refuse to do, as the article cited a USDA report that apparently does not exist - opponents of SNAP fail to acknowledge that this is a $71 billion program, and with a fraudulent spending rate of 0.09% SNAP would actually be one of the most effective federal programs in existence today. But the numbers resonate, and that is what SNAP critics want. Opponents depend on these misrepresentations to further reinforce the stigmas that haunt people who apply to receive assistance; it legitimizes the “us and them” narrative that opponents rely on to justify draconian cuts to safety net programs.
The problem is that this is not a situation where we should be emphasizing “us and them.” Even if the claims of the article were true why is the first thought that this is an example of SNAP beneficiaries gaming the system? Why is this proof that individuals and families receiving SNAP cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves? The question we should be asking is why aren’t we subsidizing healthy food options on top of providing SNAP benefits? Why are we okay with the fact that a bag of chips costs half as much as a bag of vegetables? And why are we criticizing people who are making the economical decision to budget their spending based solely on costs? Policy and political rhetoric revolve around the economics of decision-making - that smart individuals will take advantage of the market as it currently exists. Successful business people are often seen as those who cut the deal to get the most at the cheapest cost to themselves. How is that any different than what SNAP users have to do when purchasing food? Why do we judge SNAP beneficiaries on a different scale than we do businessmen?
Part of the mission of the Hub is providing food in a dignified manner; being told what you can and cannot eat is a demoralizing and undignified experience, and it contributes to the persistence of cycles of poverty and food insecurity. We want people to care about the quality of the food they eat, but that should not be done by telling people what to buy - it should be done by making quality foods the economical choice. In a perfect America, we would subsidize healthier options instead of dictating what SNAP beneficiaries can buy, but it is clear that our current environment will make this a difficult goal to achieve. We must be wary of attempts to isolate or differentiate those who find themselves in need of public assistance. The ramifications of legislating our idea of what it means to live in poverty and what people living in poverty should look like would spread well beyond a further entrenchment of the preconceived notions that plague SNAP beneficiaries. If we perpetuate the mentality that there is a specific mold that people living in poverty need to fit, that there is some other way that we can differentiate them from us to make them feel like less than a person, then we have failed as a society.