Food stamps foolishly fuel diabetes and obesity
Perhaps the most controversial element of the Trump administration’s budget is the proposal to reduce food stamp spending by 25% or $193 billion over the next decade. Forty-four million people currently receive food stamps, more than twice as many as at the end of the Clinton administration. Spending for food stamps almost quadrupled in the same period, reaching $73 billion last year.
Why did the food stamp program spiral out of control? The Obama administration believed that maximizing handouts would maximize prosperity: "Every $5 in new [food stamp] benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity."
So the feds bankrolled massive recruiting campaigns to sway people to abandon self-reliance. A North Carolina social services agency won a USDA "Hunger Champions Award" for attacking "mountain pride" as a reason not to accept government handouts. In Alabama, people received fliers proclaiming: "Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home." The state of Florida paid individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food stamp recipients per month.
Food stamp enrollment also skyrocketed after Obama effectively suspended the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to collect food stamps. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of able-bodied recipients doubled, according to the Congressional Research Service. Canceling the work requirement made food stamps far more attractive to 20-somethings. In many states, people can apply for benefits online — making it much easier than going to a job interview. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2012: "Local caseworkers across several states... described an increasing trend of single people aged 22 applying as their own [food stamp] households." The Food Stamp Poster Boy of 2013 was Jason Greenslate, a 29-year-old Californian surfer who declared that he avoids paying work and uses his monthly food stamp allotment to purchase as much sushi and gourmet lobster as $200 can buy. Then it’s off to the beach. Greenslate touted his gourmet purchases "all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars... It's free food. It's awesome."
Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney declared last week: "If you are on food stamps and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work." The administration proposes phasing in work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. This is a good first step for a program that swayed to many Americans to work less. A 2012 Journal of Public Economicsstudy concluded that receiving food stamps sharply reduces work hours by single mothers.
The Trump administration also proposes requiring state governments to begin covering a share of the costs of food stamps, in addition to the share of administrative costs they already pay. Currently, state governments have little or no incentive to police the program since losses from fraud or waste don't come out of state budgets. Unfortunately, such a smart idea will likely be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
The most important reason to curtail food stamp enrollment is because the program is a dietary disaster. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, "We've analyzed what [food stamp] participants are eating and it's horrible food. It's a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes." A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. This confirms a 2015 USDA report which revealed that food stamp recipients are far more likely to be obese than eligible non-recipients (40% vs. 32%).
A 2016 USDA report revealed that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are the most common purchase in food stamp households, accounting for almost 10% of monthly expenditures. "Desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar" account for another 10% of food stamp expenditures. The USDA report confirms earlier research on federally-funded bad diets. (The USDA and the Obama administration helped block a 2013 congressional proposal to disclose how recipients actually spend food stamps.) Food stamp recipients consume twice as many of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages as do higher incomes groups (12% vs. 6%), according to a 2015 study in Preventive Medicine. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that adult food stamp recipients had less healthy diets than eligible non-recipients.
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The Trump reform proposal ignores the easiest way to save more than $100 billion: prohibit using food stamps for junk food. Food stamps should be remodeled along the lines of theWomen Infant and Children (WIC) Program, which distributes coupons redeemable only for relatively healthy foods. A 2014 Stanford University study concluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps for sugary drinks would prevent 141,000 kids from becoming fat and save a quarter million adults from Type 2 diabetes.
Republican and Democratic governors and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pleaded with the USDA to allow them to prevent food stamps from being used for soft drinks; the USDA denied all such requests. Restricting the use of food stamps would also make the program less attractive to people who do not need federal intervention to cover their next meal.
Food stamps are the largest of 15 federal food programs, currently feeding more than 100 million people. The USDA inspector general recommended in 2013 that USDA study the impact of "providing cumulative [food] benefits" that can exceed an individual’s recommended daily [food intake]." The USDA scorned that suggestion. But carpet-bombing people with subsidized calories can cause collateral damage. "Seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight," the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 2012.Young children in low-income families are more than 50% more likely to be obese than those in other families, according to a 2016 report.
There are hungry children and adults in this nation, and the government can assist them without subverting private work ethics or public health. But there is no constitutional right to free junk food. Trump’s proposed food stamp reforms are a clean break from the Obama-era fantasy that handouts will make America rich.
James Bovard, author of Public Policy Hooligan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard