A Horse is Not a Home

A Year in the Life of an Americorps VISTA on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota

Caviar, Food Stamps, and the Conservative Emotional


The best produce in Pierre, South Dakota is probably found at a place called Korner Grocery. They have a well stocked deli with lots of local livestock cuts, as well as a surprisingly diverse selection of fish, many species of which they would have had to ship up to 2000 miles to get to this little store, off the beaten (read: only) path in town.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am on EBT for the duration of my term as an Americorps VISTA. This makes me a special case so I’m hesitant to speak for those living in poverty, but a recent conversation I had got me thinking.

While at dinner with some co-workers, I had asked one of the guys if they took food stamps there, mostly for conversation’s sake. He said probably but that “most people on food stamps just go to Wal-Mart for the cheap food.”
“Well, I mean, I’m on food stamps and I’d love to get some nice fish.” I said.
“What, you’re going to spend food stamps on LOBSTER?” he replied.  Then the kicker: “You are what’s wrong with this country!”

I believe that this was meant in jest, and I don’t really care if he thinks that I’m what’s wrong with this country. He is free to think and speak his mind, and I am free to disagree. However, this stuck with me and over the next few hours I began polling myself, my family and my friends with the question:

Should somebody be allowed to spend their food stamps on caviar?

After some good discussion, some research and some more thought, I came to be of the opinion that yes, they should.

Consider the following:

1. The regulations that are currently in place are completely reasonable.

2. The regulations that are currently in place are more strict than most other country’s entitlement programs.

3. Everybody on the EBT Food program is almost guaranteed to spend their entire allowance every month.

4. Misspending ones allocation only hurts the person doing this misspending.

5. Therefore, any offense taken to somebody living outside of their means while on an entitlement program is doing so on a purely emotional basis.

Consider the following statistic: the each American annual tax return contributes roughly $275 to entitlement programs, including welfare, TANF, WIC, and SNAP. This does not include unemployment, social security or any government or military pensions. This also does not make the distinction between single and joint filings. However,comparing that same same statistic for our defense budget provides some perspective: roughly $2048 of each tax return goes to our military spending. Interestingly enough, this figure also does not include military pensions.

Now, consider how different of a country this would be if those numbers were $375 and $1948, and if the extra $100 allocation was used creating jobs in financial and entrepreneurial coaching for those in poverty.

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8 responses to “Caviar, Food Stamps, and the Conservative Emotional

  1. Emily September 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Haven’t you heard? Hipsters on food stamps are destroying our country.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/opinion/10romm.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
    http://www.salon.com/life/pinched/2010/03/15/hipsters_food_stamps_pinched/index.html
    Etc., etc.

    I post for the lulz, but *honestly.* Anyone with half a brain realizes that money is fungible, and that gov’t dollars spent on (insert food staple here) means that more non-gov’t dollars are available for other things. Since everyone with the money to do so will buy food, no matter what, and benefit amount for food stamps is low enough that most will use some combination of EBT and cash to buy groceries, there is no fundamental difference between EBT and a cash benefit. The whole thing is window dressing… and, perhaps, a genius plan to ensure that enough vendors accept EBT that the average recipient won’t have any trouble spending it in an economically sensible way.

    I love food stamps. Or SNAP, or whatever we’re calling them these days. They’re one of the best liberal ideas ever: steal from the rich, give to the poor, and dress it all up as a base level humanitarian effort that even a conservative would love. All we need is a couple dozen more of these programs, and we’ll be at Karl Rove levels of political genius.

    • AphelionZ September 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      I don’t think it’s all that dressed up, nor do I think that Allegra making a responsible, healthy decision to buy fresh blueberries as opposed to “Great Value” starched pasta is a bad thing at all. She even admits that her money goes further at the farmers market than it does in the stores.

      It’s certainly a “liberal” idea, though, and it’s something that is going to further polarize the country once more and more people end up on unemployment and entitlement programs, which is the direction that most people can agree is where the country is headed no matter which administration sits on capitol hill. A lot of people I know both online and in real life are going on them, which would have been a complete shock to me 5-7 years ago.

      Further, I would agree that there’s no fundamental difference between EBT and a cash benefit (except that one can only buy cold, unprepared food with their EBT allocation but anyway), but I would bring that point up at the end of the economic cycle of the EBT swipe, when the vendor is reimbursed for the goods bought with EBT. If the vendor is local, then that money is going back into the town and state economies, whereas if they are bought at Wal-Mart, then that money is going to support a corporate institution which is slowly and steadily becoming one of the world’s largest economies, which I think is sick. I think people looking for “what’s wrong with this country” should look in that direction.

  2. Emily September 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Excellent comments, though I worry we’re talking at cross-purposes. I really *do* think food stamps are great. I love them almost as much as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and that’s a lot of love right there. There was a metric ton of sarcasm in my comment, but reading it back, I’m not sure if that was clear. *waves liberal card around frantically to prove her bona fides* Anyway.

    I can’t help but hope that the “I know someone on food stamps!” phenomenon (new to me as well) will help, in the end. It’s the old story: people without jobs are lazy… until your buddy Dave, with his nice wife and adorable children and fondness for craft beers, loses his and can’t seem to get an interview. People using food stamps are gaming the system… until your daughter needs them to buy groceries. And on and on. Polling suggests that the whole country– not just the unemployed part– is worried about jobs. Maybe once you strip away the political jockeying and showmanship going on in Congress, we’ll see an actual upswing in human compassion, and a push to Do Something About It at a societal level.

    Well, I can dream, anyway.

    • AphelionZ September 11, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      Cool. I read your comment a number of times and I wasnt sure so when I replied I figured I’d just throw some more of my thoughts out there and see what stuck. I’m glad we’re on the same page.

      Now that we’ve reached a bit of consensus, I’ll further your point by saying this: In every one of those movies where people overcome “isms” that we’ve all seen again and again, “The Help” being a recent example, the point is always that you don’t overcome your biases until you have tactile access to them, either through empathy or direct experience. Now, this is happening on a global scale and that is both frightening and exciting, exactly because of this hope of an upswing in compassion. We’ll see though.

  3. Luke September 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    From the horse’s mouth, entirely in jest. Although, if an individual opts to spend their limited resources on luxury items, that’s probably not particularly responsible in the fiscal sense. In which case, that does sort of exemplify what’s wrong with this country. Hmm…

    • AphelionZ September 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm

      You’re totally right! We have a 15 trillion dollar national debt and we’re off shooting $598,000 missiles into Libya. Totally irresponsible!

  4. Jyllian Thibodeau (@analogalchemist) September 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    In some fantasy world, I’d love to see incentives to redeem these sorts of benefits on locally-sourced or whole-food ingredients. The benefit of keeping the money in the community, while ensuring that those with little wealth might at least have good health could be fantastic.

    To give some context on my own viewpoint, most of the folks I know on foodstamps these days are my own age, and, were they employed, likely to be in my own yuppie income bracket — these folks would be locavores and vegans and evangelizing for all of it regardless of however they paid for their veggies. They’re not wrong, but their cuisine, and how they feel about it, comes with their culture.

    But I grew up in a pretty poor immigrant community, where food stamps and welfare checks were just a part of most people’s lives. There was a dual sense of accomplishment associated with it — “Yesss, those fat cat bastards are giving me money!” was cool, but “And I don’t need it, cause I make a full $12/hr now!” was cooler. Solid pride came from how little folks had to depend on them, but like the insanity of moving between tax brackets, losing food stamp coverage often made you poorer than having it.

    Either way, The fact of the matter is that one of the biggest benefits of those Cheerios is that they practically pour themselves into bowl. And when you’re trying to get kids out of bed and onto a bus in the morning, so you can go to your own job, that benefit is HUGE. Some part of me — even the wildly feminist part of me — knows that not having one person (“The Wife”) whose sole role is to be stationed in the domestic trenches, preparing nourishing meals for a family of people, is a huge loss for the microsociety that is that home.

    But another part of me knows that, the poorer that family is, the less time that person would have to perform that task anyway. My grandmother was a seamstress and a house cleaner, while also learning English. So my father learned to cook at age 10, and later became a chef. My other grandparents worked in a mill, and their days started two hours before their kids needed to be at school — my mom rustled her sisters out of bed and packed their lunches with vegetables from the victory garden. Bless them all for it — I wouldn’t have gotten to college without those efforts, but it took two generations of poverty to get there.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. But I’m glad my mom always packed me carrot sticks.

  5. smcdowell September 11, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    You’re (living) poor and you’re not happy to eat the garbage at walmart? You want nutritious, good quality food? HOW DARE YOU!?

    This food? This food is not for YOU. You’ll eat slop and you’ll like it, poory.

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