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.