Business/Finance

SNAP subsidies for the candy and soda industries

Human brain embellished with pictures of junk foodI’m all for food assistance. I’m not for junk food and luxury assistance.

I’ve tried to make it a rule of thumb that if I’m typing furiously because someone is wrong on the internet and I hit two line breaks, it’s time to just blog it. I don’t always remember. You’re welcome.

I remembered this time. Sorry, not sorry.

As Gentle Reader is probably all too keenly aware, the nefarious forces in the Hall of Doom are trying to make the poors eat what they’re told.

Let’s start where the likely reader and I are likely to agree. Our present administration is a mockery of good governance. That’s probably the gentlest thing I’ve ever said about it.

And let’s probably agree that if we didn’t waste so much money on a bloated military budget, we wouldn’t need to quibble over billions here and billions there for everything from SNAP to education to healthcare in some perverse artificially-induced zero sum game.

But right now, in particular, I’m probably going to run afoul of all manner of decent folk. It seems to be a habit with me.

I’m all for food assistance. I’m not for junk food and luxury assistance. From a Food and Nutrition Service page at the USDA website:

  • Soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items

  • Seafood, steak, and bakery cakes are also food items and are therefore eligible items

If a recipient wants to spend three of their limited SNAP dollars on a Snickers bar and a bottle of Code Red, that is currently a legal option. It could even be an energy drink, instead, provided it has a nutrition facts label rather than a supplement facts label.

  • Energy drinks that have a nutrition facts label are eligible foods

  • Energy drinks that have a supplement facts label are classified by the FDA as supplements, and are therefore not eligible

If the Journal of Caffeine Research is to be trusted:

Numerous policymakers at the federal, state and local levels, as well as physicians, lawyers, and public health experts, have called for stricter regulation of energy drinks.2,5,1416 Most recently, in March 2013, a group of eighteen physicians and public health officials urged the FDA to limit the caffeine content of energy drinks and require caffeine content on their labels.15 Others have called for limitations on the marketing or sale of energy drinks to minors.14

This is what is presently allowed in my category of “purchases of dubious merit.”

What’s not allowed? Purely decorative gourds, for instance. Gotta draw the line somewhere, right?

I’d just as soon that hypothetical $3 of ill-considered purchasing power went to someone who would use it for actual food instead. I don’t care if that makes me sound like a hardass. Those are luxury items. I feel the same about high-end actual food items. Does the recipient want to spend $10 on a steak instead of 2-3 lbs of ground beef? Earn it.

The point behind the program is to keep people fed, not feeding them above their pay grade.

Since I’m clearly a bad person, just consider. Let’s just say a benefits recipient only spent $3 one time on a Snickers bar and a bottle of Mountain Dew. As per Politifact (on one of the few occasions Trump wasn’t completely full of shit), there are 43 million people receiving SNAP benefits. That’s $129 million on candy bars and soda, you know, just that once.

From HuffPo: “Of the one-in-five Americans who participated in a program like Medicaid or food stamps from 2009 through 2012, the Census Bureau reported this week, 56 percent stopped participating within 36 months, while 43 percent lingered between three and four years. Nearly one-third quit receiving benefits within one year.”

So let’s just be really generous in our napkin math and work with 43 million people only receiving benefits for one year rather than 36 months or 48 months, even though more people (38.6%) remained on SNAP benefits for between 37 and 48 months than those (30.4%) who were on the program for only 1-12 months. Calling 1 year all around sound fair enough?

Since we don’t know how many people receiving SNAP actually buy soda and candy with the benefit, let’s not go haywire and assume it’s all. Or even half. Or even a quarter. Let’s say 10%. That’s 4.3 million people. Considering American consumer habits generally, I think that’s a safe, low, low number.

Since we’re being so reasonable, let’s also consider that people generally like some kind of a treat once in a while, not just that one time ever. Is that a fair understatement? Let’s not assume it’s an every day thing, either, or even a weekly thing. Just once a month. A bottle of soda and a candy bar. For a year. That’s only $36. Big whoop.

Times 4.3 (very low estimate) million out of the total 43 million SNAP recipients. Even with that low hypothetical participation in unhealthy food choices, we still hit $154.8 million of hard to come by budget money for candy and pop.

But for that waste, that’s $154.8 million of SNAP assistance that could have been made available to more people.

According to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “On average, SNAP households received about $254 a month in fiscal year 2017.” According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the average monthly SNAP benefits per participant in 2015 came to $127.57. I think that accords well with CBPP’s number if a household is often a single parent with one child. Are we still on safe ground here?

$154,800,000 broken up into $127 chunks comes out to 1,218,897 benefit months. With 12 months in the year, that’s 101,574 benefit years. Divide that by two, and that’s another 50,787 parent/child recipients that could be added to the program, but for candy bars and soda.

And those are the lowball estimates.

I don’t expect to win converts on this issue. It’s an emotional issue, after all. But I do hope that those who defend including candy and soda in the program are comfortable with who really foots that expense…50,787 other 2-person households.

I might be a horrible person now, but I hope I can be forgiven for thinking the dignity of those other potential 50,787 households has a greater value than the dignity of someone on assistance depriving them of food so they can have a treat instead. Added bonus, those funds go, indirectly, to supporting the candy and soda industries. That’s a nice subsidy if your lobbyist can get it for you and sell it as a good idea to the American voter.

Should I run numbers closer to the middle of the ranges, which I expect would reflect reality better, or would that just be gratuitously mean?

2 replies »

  1. I am on SSD/SSI & I get food stamps. I don’t buy meat as a rule because it’s so wicked expensive. But if I want to get a steak … if one of the stores around here is having a sale & I can get a little steak for $5 … WHY CAN’T I TREAT MYSELF? Who the fuck are you to tell me to “earn” it?

    I also buy bags of medium shrimp at Aldi’s .. they’re quite cheap there. No more than $4-5. I can get three or four meals out that ONE BAG of shrimp. I know that lots of people think that shrimp is a luxury item but for someone like me, it’s a easy addition to stir-fries & pasta meals.

    Telling ANY of us what we can buy & can’t buy is NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS. I didn’t ask to be disabled. I didn’t ask not to be able to work. But while we’re at it, I PAID for my SSD/SSI & I pay taxes as well, so if I want to spend my SNAP dollars in a way that pisses you or anyone else off, then just SFTU about it. I eat the way I eat & I do it in a way that stretches MY dollars. MY SNAP DOLLARS. NOT YOURS.

    • I appreciate your feedback and respect your right to your opposing opinion. You should try that sometime…respecting the right to disagree. STFU? Indeed. A less civil me would tell you to go fuck yourself.

      But since I’m being civil, I’ll just point out that you quite handily evade the points I bring up. If it were just you, knock yourself out. Get some fois gras while you’re at it. But it’s not just you. And whether or not we like it that it’s treated as a zero sum game, that’s exactly how it’s handled in Congress until the American people grow up and elect a Congress that doesn’t fail at life. And in that artificially imposed zero-sum game, it’s so refreshing to see your “I got mine,” approach to the issue. If that’s not the case, then why avoid the part where imprudently spending funds deny others the food they could use?

      STFU? How about “don’t be a selfish asshole?” I suppose all those other people must have asked for their financial woes since your case is so special.

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