Tuesday, October 12, 2010

SNAP vs. Sodas

Not content with trying to raise our state soda tax, New York City's mayor is petitioning USDA to disallow food stamp (aka SNAP) participants from purchasing sugared sodas with food stamp money. This is not the first time such a request has been made and it has been rejected all the other times.

The primary hope is that doing so will reduce obesity by reducing soda purchases. To the (very large) extent that recipients can substitute their own money for the stamps, it will have negligible effects.

One claim is that this is very paternalistic. Some even argue that it is a tax on poor people's soda purchases but not rich people's. One counter is to question to what extent food stamp funds are recipients' money - if it is "the government's" money government may have every right to determine to what it goes; if it is taxpayers' money, shouldn't they have a more direct say over it? The second is to point out that the actual price does not change, only the sources of income that may be used. I would also submit that it is difficult to hold both that this is paternalistic and will have no effect.

M. Nestle seems unwilling to quite come down firmly on the issue. While worrying about the health effects of sugared sodas and favoring a soda tax, she would rather see food stamps act as a subsidy for healthy foods than disallowing soda purchases.

Wilde puts forward some simple questions for any similar proposal:
Have the policy's sponsors won over any substantial fraction of the supposed beneficiaries? Does the policy treat people from different income backgrounds fairly and equally? Do the sponsors articulate the limits to the policy, so that the public is reassured the policy will not overreach?
A little later, M. Nestle added the following points from Fisher:

contrary [to the paternalistic view that poor people make poor food choices] some studies have shown that food stamp recipients actually buy more nutritious food per dollar than non-food stamp recipients. ...On the other hand, public health groups are dead-on accurate that it is irresponsible public policy to be subsidizing with tax dollars the purchase of unhealthy products that will burden society with increased health care costs in the future. ...
Perhaps one of the more fundamental questions is what SNAP really is:

If it is a “supplemental nutrition” program, then shouldn’t USDA define which products are nutritious based on Institute of Medicine standards, and limit purchases to these products? USDA does this with the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is widely touted for saving billions in health care costs.
If food stamps are an income support program, and anti-hunger advocates want to maximize poor people’s freedom of choice, then why shouldn’t food stamps be distributed as cash rather than as a debit card good for food purchases? Doesn’t receiving cash maximize a person’s dignity ...

The real story behind food stamps is that it is neither a nutrition program nor an income support program. It is a massive subsidy for the food retailers, grocery manufacturers, and industrial growers. ... The extra buying power food stamps provides to low income Americans will end up in [corporations'] pockets.
Wilde also shares this story from Gandhi's example:
A woman once brought her boy to Mahatma Gandhi to have him tell her boy to stop eating sugar. He told them to return in two weeks. When they returned, he told the boy to stop eating sugar. When asked why he didn't tell the boy the first time to stop eating sugar, Gandhi replied, "Two weeks ago I was still eating sugar."
Cawley's question has been why sodas and not all sugary products? If people switch from Coke to Hershey's and Doritos, how much progress has been made?

And though I can't seem to lay my finger on it just now, someone was recently reminding me that back in the 1930s-70s, taxes on unhealthy food was the reductio ad absurdum when discussing taxes on tobacco and alcohol. Oh, no, we'd never go down that route. We're proposing something only sensible people would agree to.

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