Let’s say you have an argument to make about Issue X. And let’s say there’s a great deal of merit to what you have to say. Perhaps there is some part of your argument that reasonable people could disagree on in good faith, but you’re firmly convinced that your position on that much is valid, and as to the rest of it, you can prove it up to anyone’s reasonable standard of validity.
And then you pull some nickel-assed stunt like citing some alleged “study” in support of your argument, a “study” that you don’t provide a link to, and that is purportedly done by an outfit that, when you run a Google search, you find nothing at all directly related to that organization.
This is what some website doing business under the name “National Report” has done. Under the breathless headline “New Study Reveals 89% of Nation’s Food Stamps Squandered On Junk Food,” they report that some group identified as “Malbeck Data Institute” has released a study involving alleged interviews with “over 100,000 men and women who are currently accepting SNAP assistance” (as reported at Conservative Frontline). Neither site provides a link to any report of a study. Google searches on “Malbeck Data Insitute,” “Malbeck Data,” and “Malbeck Institute” produce nothing that directs you to any website or other location where any such study results are available for public inspection, or even to a website under any variant of those names. We are therefore to understand that an institute which has the wherewithal to interview “over 100,000” individual respondents does not have an online presence, does not publish its research online itself, and does not do so with some reputable online resource like Social Science Research Network. A search there for a recent publication on the subject of “food stamps” also produces nothing along the lines of this alleged study, although there are articles addressing the subjects of food stamp fraud, recipients’ purchasing decisions, and so forth. [Note (10 May 14): I started this post yesterday after seeing a link to that article on Instapundit. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who went checking around for this alleged study’s bona fides.]
Not content with the carnival-huckster headline, the author over at National Report favors us with lines like this: “However, judging by what these individuals are choosing to purchase, it is evident that the majority of those who receive benefits are criminally milking the system for all it’s worth.” This piece is not presented as an opinion piece, by the way. Most of it is in fact presented as a write-up of what they allege to be their own, informal cross-check done through the simple method of watching what people at a Wal-Mart were buying with food stamps one day.
“Criminally milking the system,” though? I didn’t see anything in that article, anywhere, to suggest that anyone purchased or attempted to purchase a single item not legally permitted to be bought with food stamps. News flash: If the program rules permit it, it isn’t “criminal.” If it’s not illegal, it’s not even necessarily abusive. I’m not aware that buying junk food somehow increases the amount of money you get to put on your SNAP card, so if this emaciated drug addict mentioned was loading up on candy bars then that’s just that much less money he had to buy something that would (as my mother used to say) “stick to his ribs.” Another smiley-faced Wal-Mart customer mentioned, the 29-year-old mother of six (!), who disclaimed knowledge of who were the fathers of four of them (!!), is castigated for buying “microwavable entrees.” Well, so what? There are a great number of perfectly wholesome microwave family-sized dishes out there. I’m not willing to conclude without more that this woman’s dietary choices were as flawed as her bedroom habits.
And this is where I get my butt chapped. You see, there is tremendous waste in the SNAP program. It shouldn’t be the case that you can buy candy and soft drinks and junk food with SNAP. A few months ago I ran across a link to an article on Appalachia (I thought I’d linked to it in a blog post, but apparently I didn’t), and specifically to its gray market. This article named names and places, by the way. One of the phenomena described was how on the days that everyone’s SNAP card gets credited, you can see people pushing shopping carts through the grocery stores, and they’re entirely loaded with soft drinks. As in hundreds of cans of soft drinks. And nothing else. What’s going on is that they’ll buy a case of soft drinks for $X, then turn around and sell it back to the store (or another store, assuming the case hasn’t been opened), for $0.50 on the dollar (the article in fact describes how some people will stock-pile soft drinks at home and use them as quasi-currency among themselves). Store then repeats the process, and the SNAP recipient now has a pocket full of cash to go and spend on whatever else. In Appalachia that all too frequently works out to mean meth and Oxycontin. Notice, however, how the store is a critical player in this fraud. There are many fewer stores to audit than SNAP recipients. What does this suggest about where is the vulnerable link in this scheme?
Given the miracles of modern bar coding of absolutely everything under the sun that is sold at retail, it would be childishly simple to control very tightly for nutrition and quality everything that SNAP recipients buy. Want your product to be eligible for purchase with SNAP? Fine, you must put a bar code on each container sold separately at retail, and you must apply to HHS for that container of that product to be white-listed. HHS then updates its master white-list monthly or so, and thus if our mother-of-six trots up and plops down the jumbo-sized pork rinds, the cash register spits it back out. But that would of course make the cashiers’ jobs harder when mother-of-six looks at him and lies, “I didn’t know you couldn’t buy these things with food stamps.” At which point he grabs the tub of butter she also bought and directs her attention to the tiny SNAP logo printed right beside its bar code. “You see this logo, ma’am? Show me that logo on that bag of pork rinds. Everybody’s stuff you can pay for with your card has that logo on it. If it ain’t got the logo you can’t buy it with food stamps.”
But, Gentle Reader objects, that would put unconscionable burdens on the manufacturers. No it wouldn’t. They’re asking the American taxpayer to buy, at his expense, their products for someone else to eat or drink. Color me Scrooge, but I’m just not seeing that as an imposition beyond the pale.
Gentle Reader further objects to some government agency “dictating what poor people buy.” That’s not what is proposed. For starts, there will be thousands of products of all sorts which would be registered by their producers, and if you tell me I may select from among 17,500 potential items, but may not buy 4,750 others, you’re just going to have to pardon me for declining to think of that as dictating what I must buy.
Secondly, the application for approval process can be used in a secondary role to increase the quality of what poor people are eating. For instance: Go to your favorite deli (or refrigerator case) and look at the bologna, or cooked ham, or turkey, or whatever. Somewhere on there it will state how much of that product, by weight, is . . . water. In a lot of instances you’ll find that you’re paying $11.99 a pound for something that’s upwards of 30% water. In Germany, by contrast, until recently (you can thank the EU-slugs for changing it) you could, by law, put two classes of ingredients into processed meat products: meat and spices. Period. Or how about breakfast cereals? Want the taxpayer to subsidize your customer’s purchase of your product? Fine; just don’t put more than X% sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in it. And so forth. It’ll still be plenty sweet, but the sugar and corn industries won’t be getting a massive double subsidy out of the bargain (their production is already highly subsidized), and maybe the poor won’t be snookered into developing diabetes by age 45.
Will that increase the cost to the SNAP recipient of what he’s buying? Yes; good food tends, overall, to be more expensive than cheap food (largely, no doubt, because cheap food products typically rely on heavily-subsidized ingredients like sugar and corn syrup; look at the top five ingredients in the junk foods sold in your local store, and then compare them with the comparable ingredients listing on the better-quality products). On the other hand it is also a characteristic that junk foods by their metabolic effects tend to make your body crave them all the more, the more you eat. Better-quality foods do that less. So while our hypothetical SNAP recipient is “paying” (read: we’re paying for him) more for food, he’s getting a more lasting appetite satisfaction from it. So in the long run he’ll need to eat less of it, and in fact will feel himself not hungry for longer.
What would be the net effects of all this on the food-intake needs and desires of SNAP recipients, both in their own terms and relative to the benefits they’re eligible to receive? Can’t say, beyond the fact that they would be eating better overall. And if the net effect is still an unacceptable overall price increase, because by hypothesis these things are going to be paid for electronically and will be linked to a computer database, HHS can negotiate price breaks with producers and/or retailers. Remember it’s their customer who is being subsidized, and therefore their bottom line that’s being subsidized. It’s no different from the exclusion of interest on municipal bonds from the bondholder’s gross income under § 103 of the Internal Revenue Code. That is point-blank a subsidy for state and local government borrowers (they can borrow at significantly lower rates because their lenders won’t have to pay taxes on the interest), and Congress sure as hell is entitled to place such restrictions on the use of those borrowed funds as are necessary to ensure that the subsidy is not being abused.
Here I’ll also confess to something of sympathy with mother-of-six (if she exists). I do about 70% of the cooking in our household, meaning I cook for myself and my three boys. The wife won’t eat what I cook, by and large, so I gave up on that years ago. If there are leftovers I’ll offer them but there’s a limit to how many different things I can cook for one meal. When I cook for my boys, they get a meat-and-two minimum, and more typically a meat-and-three (daddy usually eats much more simply). And then I do the dishes. I also do a good bit of the laundry, and the overwhelming majority of the grocery shopping (when I go I bring back meat, vegetables, fruits, and primary ingredients; when the wife goes she brings back candied breakfast cereals and junk food, mostly). And I work six days a week. So I know what it means to bust ass and still try to put a more-or-less healthy meal on the table. It’s not easy. But it can be done.
You see? I managed to make all of the above suggestions without once using words like “criminally” or “abused” or “lay-about” or “parasites” or “dead-beats” or similar expressions, or citing to some non-existent study to “prove” my points. But over at the National Report and Conservative Frontline they’ve got to go that extra mile. Given how fragile trustworthiness is in a universe like the internet, I can’t say that I could ever trust again something from their sites. Pity.
[Update (12 May 14): In reply to M. Simon’s question (thanks for commenting, by the way) as to whether “this post” was based on real studies or bogus ones, I’m assuming he’s referring to my post and not the posts I linked to. I wish I’d remembered to bookmark that article on Appalachia I referred to, but I didn’t. It was, however, in a “reputable” publication. I can’t recall whether it was The Atlantic, or Bloomberg, or some other, but it was in a publication with some reputational stake in not just making stuff up. As to overall observable purchasing patterns, I refer not only to what I’ve observed over the years myself, but also to several decades’ acquaintance with people involved in retail food, all the way from cash register jockeys to store owners. They all have the same sets of comments, many of which boil down to, “You wouldn’t believe what gets bought with food stamps!”
As to the presence of processed sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in the national diet, by odd coincidence at lunch today I saw a physician from New York getting interviewed on Fox News on exactly this point. He quoted numbers: 600,000 food products sold in America, and 80% of them contain “added sugar,” generally in the form of processed cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. He held up a vial of what he represented was the sugar contained in one regular 12-oz. soft drink; it was a pretty thick test tube. He then explained why high-fructose corn syrup is so insidious. Apparently it suppresses release (he used the expression “shuts down”) of the hormone that tells your body you’re full and can stop eating. And they showed side-by-side brain scans of the effect of sugar versus cocaine.
This doctor feller attributed the corn syrup’s popularity with food manufacturers to its comparative price relative to cane sugar. And there’s a tie-in to M. Simon’s comment here as well. Cane sugar is extortionately expensive in the U.S. because of ridiculously high tariffs on imported sugar. Can’t recall the source any more, but once upon a time I saw the figure of a factor of five (or thereabouts; it’s been years since I saw that figure) is the cost increase that’s passed along to the American eater just in order to make domestic production pay. And notwithstanding cane sugar is not a “natural” crop in our part of North America (in the sense of maize or wheat, both of which will grow just jim dandy in most of the continent), pay it does. To give an illustration of just how high up these ties go and how lucrative they are for the welfare recipient: Apparently the person whom then-President Clinton was talking to on the phone while a now-famous intern was pleasuring him was one of the principals in the leading domestic sugar producer. Not that “ordinary” processed cane sugar is healthy by any stretch, but this particular piece of corporate welfare is not only massively increasing the cost of living to Americans at large, but it’s also indirectly contributing to significant increases in the incidence of morbid obesity.]
[Update (19 May 14): While checking the weather for the next few days over at The Weather Channel, I ran into this link on the subject of added sugar in breakfast cereal. They’ve got a slide show on a group of cereals each of which is at least 50% sugar by weight. The winner is 88% sugar. Plop a bowl of this in front of Junior and almost nine-tenths of what your child is shoveling into his face is processed sugar. One pattern which struck me is how many of the cereals on this list are puffed-wheat products. I remember having un-sugared puffed wheat cereals when a child, and they tasted like Styrofoam. I also remember having un-sugared rice puff cereal, and it tasted that way but even more. Regular corn flakes aren’t exactly packed with flavorful sensations either. So why so many wheat puffs and not rice? Why only one frosted flake product? Maybe rice puff cereal has finally been moved over to the section with the monofilament tape, corrugated cardboard boxes, and other packaging products where it belongs? In any event, if this Hall o’ Shame won’t put you off your feed, it ought to.]
[Update (15 Dec 14): And for more on the subject of fructose’s effects on the body’s ability to recognize when it has taken on board enough fuel, we have this report.]