SNAP: A Window into Entrenched Interests


The SNAP Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a perennial punching bag for conservatives and the subject of intense debate for Americans across the political gamut. It crosses major fault lines in the economy of our political thought — the “deservingness” of the poor, the role of government in encouraging (or restricting) choice, the proper size and scope of government assistance, among other things — as well as social categories of race, gender, wealth and power. And yet for an issue freighted with such social and political significance, many people have a knee-jerk reaction based on their chosen position along the liberal-conservative spectrum, as if the only alternatives available to us were increasing or decreasing funding for the current program.

A great piece by Matt Yglesias, formerly of Slate and soon-to-be partner in a new venture with Ezra Klein, lays out the basic argument against the SNAP program: basically, instead of giving poor people SNAP benefits, we should just send them a check.

It comes down to this: SNAP in its current configuration, like many other government programs, is the outcome of a compromise serving entrenched interests rather than the poor citizens it ostensibly serves. On one side you have agribusiness — “crop producers, livestock and meat producers, poultry and egg companies, dairy farmers, timber producers, tobacco companies and food manufacturers and stores” — traditionally Republican-leaning and powerful; in 2008, agribusiness spent $65 million on elections at the federal level. On the other side are traditionally Democrat-leaning urban liberals, who support government assistance programs for the poor. Since the 1930s, the two interests have come together periodically to pass a massive omnibus spending bill providing cash subsidies for farmers and nutritional assistance for the poor — with the condition that this assistance come in the form of agricultural commodities rather than cash.

The downside of SNAP benefits for the people actually receiving them are obvious. Many poor citizens are forced to either buy more food than they want to consume, or to “defraud” the government by trading their benefits to other citizens to acquire the things they actually want. Many liberals, ironically, agree that constraining the choices of the people they want to help is the right thing, for reasons of paternalist or moral thinking — as if being poor somehow meant one shouldn’t have the opportunity to smoke a cigarette or enjoy a drink. The downside of SNAP for the American taxpayer is similarly clear: sending poor Americans a check rather than bankrolling an administrative agency designed to distribute benefits and regulate their use would be cheaper and a much more cost effective use of public resources.

The upside for agribusiness (and the politicians they support) and urban liberal politicians, however, is enormous. The farm lobby is virtually assured continued passage of its favored subsidies (subsidies that have exploded in recent years), while urban liberals get the kind of paternalistic program that supports government jobs.

Sadly, the SNAP program is one example of the many government programs that operate as giveaways for entrenched economic and political interests rather than elements of effective public policy. We hope this blog will serve as a space to questions such institutions — to focus on the proper role of institutions and purposes of government rather than their level of funding.