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Government Assistance Comes With Strings

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When it comes to the Nanny State, count me a critic. But I make a distinction between the government improperly sticking its nose where it doesn't belong and government acting as a good steward of my tax dollars. The difference explains why I support a proposal by a conservative state legislator that lets government tell food stamp recipients what they can and cannot buy with government funds. But there are limits to this intrusion.

In January, Florida state senator Ronda Storms (R) introduced a bill that would limit what items recipients of food stamps could purchase. No longer would they be able to use the program to pay for sodas, chips, candy and other snack food. Liberals screamed discrimination against the poor and some conservatives said Storms was on a slippery slope that would lead to government telling all of us what we can and cannot eat. One Republican colleague dubbed Storms' proposal the "no Twinkie left behind" bill.

It's time for both sides to take a deep breath. The food stamp program -- a misnomer at this point since most states use a debit card system to provide benefits -- began during the Great Depression. Its purpose was two-fold: to feed the destitute and to provide agricultural subsidies to struggling farmers. As anyone who has ever seen pictures of Dust Bowl refugees from that period can attest, poor people were often emaciated, sometimes starving. Today, the biggest nutritional problem for the poor is that they are overweight, not underweight. The rich are thin and the poor, all too often, obese.

When individuals are spending their own money to inflict health problems on themselves, there isn't much anyone can do. And a look at statistics on weight in the U.S. shows that a lot of Americans are making bad choices. More than half of all American adults are overweight, and 36 percent are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control. But when some of these people are using other people's money to pay for their bad choices, it's more than a private decision.

The whole idea behind the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name of the food stamps program, is to ensure that the nutritional needs of beneficiaries are being met. A six-pack of sodas and a bag of chips not only don't provide nutrition -- they inflict actual harm. Instead of providing protein and complex carbohydrates, these snacks contain empty calories filled with too much sugar or chemical substitutes, salt and simple carbs that the body transforms into more sugar. And children are especially at risk.

Storms' bill faces an uphill battle. Republicans are wary of her effort, and Democrats won't do anything to restrict government subsidies to the poor. And even if it were to pass in Florida, it's unclear that a state can impose restrictions on how recipients of a federally funded program spend those benefits. But the principle is important -- and one that conservatives should embrace.

One of the reasons conservatives are suspicious of government benefits is that they always come with strings attached. If the government is directly paying for your housing, the food on your table or your medical care, it is reasonable to assume the government has some stake in how those funds are spent. The question is: How much of a stake? And how many restrictions can government impose?

The federal government already restricts many items that can be purchased under the food stamp program: liquor, tobacco, pet food, soap and cleaning products, among them. But the Department of Agriculture has opposed efforts to restrict food stamp purchase of snack and junk foods, claiming that doing so would make the program more cumbersome and wouldn't necessarily encourage most recipients to make better food choices.

On the latter point, the department says: "Food stamp recipients are no more likely than higher-income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value." Maybe not, but at least non-beneficiaries are spending their own money to pack on the pounds and will likely pay for the health consequences of their choices out of their own pockets. So long as the taxpayers are paying at both ends, reasonable restrictions make sense.

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