Do “food stamps” mitigate hunger among the American poor? No. Although with a name like “food stamps” one can be forgiven for falling into the trap of believing so. Following the current cutesy trend that apparently requires government programs have clever acronyms that describe their purpose (PATRIOT Act, HIRE Act, etc.) it has been renamed SNAP (get it, “snap” your fingers and food appears courtesy of the US taxpayer!) But I digress. Why do they not help? Three reasons: (a) fungibility & marginal utility, (b) socialized costs and (c) dehumanization through dependency.

Fungibility means that any given unit of something is indistinguishable from any other unit of the same material. For example, grain, silver or dollars are fungible, however diamonds or tires are not (as they vary in quality). Marginal utility is the concept that given some good, as one procures more of said good one values each subsequent unit less. So if you have a small amount of water, you value it highly as you must satisfy your most urgent needs first (thirst). But, as you gain access to more water you may then opt to “waste” it on less urgent needs, e.g. washing your car. Ok, so with that little economics lesson out of the way, how does this relate to food stamps? The food stamp money is fungible with regular money. In other words food stamps are no different than cash. Why? Absent food stamps the marginal value of the money recipients possess is very high and they will spend it on the most urgent needs (food) first. People in poverty aren’t going to NOT buy food and instead buy sneakers, movie tickets and haircuts. That would just be stupid. If we then give them money earmarked for food, they will still buy food (with food stamp money) AND NOW other (less urgent) goods with the money they used to spend on food. We are just playing a shell game, pretending this money is for this and that money is for that. It’s all just mixed together. Fungibilty is the reason some recipients can afford fancy nails and cell phones.

A secondary issue is that of socialized costs. Because the program exists people are willing to work for less than they would absent the program because they know they can count on it. If I know I need $15k/year to survive but I know the government will give me $5k/year in food stamps, then I’m going to be a lot more willing to work for $10k/year. So the employer pays less because the employee is willing to accept the lower wage BECAUSE OF the program. Then the government taxes the employer and hands the money over to the employee as food stamps. So in the end both end up with the same amount of money. So what did we accomplish here? Why not just cut out the middleman (the government) and pass the savings onto everyone? Once again we are just playing a shell game where the only beneficiary is the government.

The state is our shepherd, we (the sheeple) shall not want.

The final issue is the social harm the program engenders through the promotion of an entitlement mentality (literally – the government is running ads trying to get people to join the SNAP rolls). This mentality dehumanizes the recipient by promoting the idea they are merely wards of the state who cannot survive without suckling at the state’s communal teat. The state is our shepherd, we (the sheeple) shall not want. Inherent to the structure of any entitlement program is an economic feedback incentive that promotes attachment. The more money you make the less benefits you qualify for. I think U2 captured the idea well, “running to stand still.” Why expend great effort to obtain that which you can obtain from no effort at all?

I know politicians mean well, but their complete ignorance of basic economics and incentives creates problems bigger than the ones they were trying to solve. Just because something seems intuitively obvious (state sponsored welfare helps people) doesn’t mean it is correct. The notion that the sun revolved around the earth was intuitively obvious for centuries until someone took the time to apply some thought to the question. Big problems require deliberate, contemplative analysis, not thoughtless, knee-jerk, feel-good solutions.