Giving People Money Instead of Food Stamps Would Not Lead to an Honest Debate

April 06, 2015

Under a bill recently introduced in the Missouri legislature, people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would not be able to use them to buy cookies, seafood, and certain other foods. In response, Matthew Yglesias argues we should “give poor people money instead of food stamps … [t]hen we could have an honest debate about how much money we want to spend on making poor people’s lives easier, without a lot of red herrings about steak dinners.” 

The Missouri legislation is a very bad idea, but there is little reason to think that providing SNAP benefits in the form of “cash” that could be spent on anything rather than vouchers for food would result in the honest debate Yglesias and I would both like to see. The more likely result would be a far worse and less honest debate, one that would only further undercut the modest consumption floor the SNAP program currently provides to millions of struggling people. 

This can be quickly grasped by comparing Temporary Assistance for Need Famlies (TANF), which does provide assistance in the form of cash, with SNAP. Funding for TANF has not been increased—at all, even to keep pace with inflation—since TANF (then AFDC) was block granted in 1996. And TANF, despite being the closest thing we have to a means-tested unemployment assistance program, barely responded to the Great Recession. SNAP benefits, on the other hand, have kept pace with inflation, and the program played a major counter-cyclical role during the downturn.

It’s also worth noting that the really troubling legislation that is likely to pass this year in Missouri is not the SNAP cookie ban, but a bill, currently in a conference committee, that would impose much more extensive new restrictions on low-income parents applying for TANF benefits, while also directing that the state spend $9 million of its annual TANF block grant on marriage promotion as well as “alternatives to abortion” services and advertising.

Providing food assistance in the form of cash rather than an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card that can only be used for food may dissipate one very specific source of symbolic angst—those people are using their SNAP cards to buy seafood! But at the same time it would make SNAP even more vulnerable than it already is to the kind of dishonest and often racially tinged attacks that have led to TANF’s decline in so many states. And while it may be impolite to acknowledge, SNAP has arguably been better able to withstand these kinds of attacks at the federal level because it is part of the Farm Bill, a link that would be impossible to maintain if SNAP wasn’t limited to food assistance.

That said, it’s important to not give up on efforts to improve TANF so that it provides a greater level of protection and assistance, including in the form of unrestricted income aid that can be used to purchase housing, transportation, clothes, and other items that people need to live a minimally decent life and search for work or a better job. The media could play a helpful role here by spending much more time than it currently does highlighting the considerable shortfalls of TANF, and the ways in which many states are continuing to make it worse.

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