Last weekend, consumers all across America were buying their slice of the 2.2 billion pounds of chocolate that would be sold for Valentine’s Day. For those who make enough income to afford their basic necessities, that necessitates setting aside some of the money they would have normally spent on rent, clothes or regular groceries to buy candies. For the poor, that could mean using some of their meager food-stamp allocation to give a gift to their loved ones.
The latter method, however, riled up some local news stations. “SNAP accepted for Valentine’s Day candy raises questions,” blared a headline for one station in Tennessee. Reporter Felicia Bolton asked two shoppers what they thought about EBT cards being used to buy candy. They didn’t approve: “If it’s supposed to be nutritional, candy’s not really nutritional,” said one. Curt Autry, at the Richmond, Virginia, NBC affiliate, conducted his own investigation into just how much candy comes in baskets that the poor can buy with food stamps.
Food stamp resentment, as Arthur Delaney has coined it, is a year-round phenomenon. It’s when a random shopper decides that he or she has the authority to dictate what poor people buy with the food stamps that come to a tiny bit over $4 a day, on average. The reason: that this food is being bought with “our” tax dollars, so we should have a say in what it can buy.
It’s an old complaint, as Delaney documents. A 1993 Columbus Dispatch letter to the editor decried a recipient who bought “two bottles of wine, steak and a large bag of king crab legs” with food stamps. Beyond candy, steaks and crab legs come up a lot. Texas Representative Louie Gohmert told a story on the floor of the House about a supposed constituent who was buying king crab legs in line ahead of him with an EBT card. “Because he does pay income tax…he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can’t pay for them for himself,” Gohmert claimed. Wisconsin State Representative Dean Kaufert told a similar story, but the person in line watched a food stamp recipient buy “the tenderloin, the porterhouse” with the benefits.
Why do people think they’re entitled to decide how food stamps, in particular, are used? Not all government benefits elicit such feelings. When we give people assistance through the home-mortgage interest deduction, we don’t feel entitled to tell them what house to buy or what neighborhood to live in; when we subsidize a college education through student loans, we don’t tell students what school to go to or what to major in. When we tax capital gains income at a lower rate than income made from labor, we certainly don’t tell those stock pickers what to do with the extra cash.
One big difference is that mortgage and student loan help usually comes in the form of tax credits, part of what political scientist Suzanne Mettler has dubbed the “submerged state.” Benefits delivered through a tax break or subsidy to a private entity, rather than an EBT card or check, are made invisible to those who use them and everyone around them. Even Medicare, one of the largest government programs, is often delivered through private insurance, thus masking the fact that it’s a benefit. Mettler conducted a survey in 2008 that found that, while 57 percent of people said they’d never used a government program, 94 percent of those who denied it had benefited from at least one, usually one that was “submerged.”
The reason people in line at a grocery store get to feel morally superior to someone on food stamps is because she has to whip out a card that tells the world that she gets assistance buying food. No such card exists when applying for a mortgage or getting a federally subsidized student loan.
The other difference, of course, is that food stamps help the poor. (Tax expenditures, including mortgage assistance, overwhelmingly help the wealthy.) And the poor are assumed to be poor because they’re bad with money. More often than not, they’re poor because they can’t get work that pays them enough to not be poor. And they’re not any worse with their money than the rest of the country. In fact, low-income Americans spend larger percentages of their budgets on the necessities like housing, utilities, transportation and home-cooked food. The richest 20 percent spend more on “luxuries” like eating out and entertainment. The rich even spend more of their budgets on alcoholic beverages—so much for poor people’s wasteful spending on fine wine.
The same holds true if you just examine people who receive public benefits like welfare cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid: they spend a bigger portion of their budgets on food, housing and transportation and a smaller portion on restaurants and movies than the population that doesn’t rely on those benefits. Food stamp use also shows smart budgeting. While it’s not up to date, a survey from the late 1990s found that meats made up more than a third of food stamp purchases, which grains and fruits and veggies made up nearly 20 percent each. Dairy products took up another 12.5 percent. Sweets, on the other hand, came to just 2.5 percent.
Also: being poor doesn’t mean you should be condemned to a life of austerity and abstinence. More than 45 million people live below the federal poverty line, and even more hover close enough to it that they struggle to get by. More people are slipping downward as income inequality stretches the distance between them and the very top. When work doesn’t pay you enough to cover the bills, you should seek out public assistance. But you should also be able to enjoy some of life’s joys—including giving a box of chocolates to a loved one for Valentine’s Day.