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New York City attempts to ban using food stamps to buy soda

Mark D. White

When it rains...

As the New York Times and many other news organizations have reported, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (together with New York State governor David Patterson) are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture for permission to block the city's 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using the funds to purchase soda and other sugary drinks.

Of course, this is nothing new or surprising from Mayor Bloomberg, who has already enacted curbs on trans fats in city restaurants as well as increased limitations on smoking (possibly to be extended to city parks and other public outdoor areas). But this recent move is different in that it applies only to recipients of the food stamp welfare program, and therefore is an additional limitation on how state-provided funds may be spent (alcohol, tobacco, and prepared foods are already blocked) (After all, a food stamp recipient may have other sources of cash income which he or she can use to buy soda as well as alcohol, cigarettes, and so forth.)

The obvious argument for such restrictions is that the state--which is to say the taxpayers--are providing recipients with aid to help ameliorate the effects of poverty, so the state is wholly within its rights to limit the use of that aid as a condition of receiving it. Setting aside the classical liberal or libertarian arguments, both principled and pragmatic, against welfare programs, which are not my concern at the moment, one can still question, given the existence of food stamp programs, the ethics of placing paternalistic restrictions of the use of such aid.

If the state is gonig to provide aid to its worst-off citizens, the least manipulative way to do that is to provide cash (such as in Milton Friedman's negative income tax proposal). As a further step, if the state wants to focus on food poverty, it may issue food stamps (actually a debit card now, but the name has stuck) that are limited to purchases of food (and basic household items such as soap), assuming that food will be one of the primary purchases made by citizens in poverty (after housing, which the state also actively subsidizes). This is manipulation and paternalistic, but in the grand scheme of things, it is rather mild.

But one can question if the state goes too far when it narrowly defines what food items are to be excluded, based on what it wants people to consume or not. Note the city's proposed formula (from the linked Times article):

The ban would affect beverages with more than 10 calories per 8 ounces, and would exclude fruit juices without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes. A 12-ounce soda has 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 packets of sugar, according to the health department. City health officials say that drinking 12 ounces of soda a day can make a person gain 15 pounds a year.

It does not take a prognosticator to predict the maneuvers by the soft drink industry to work around that (such as CAFE standards affected the automotive industry). (And I'm not even going to touch the bit about soda's ability to "make a person gain" weight, as if consumers cannot adjust their exercise and diet routines to accommodate the occasional Coke.) But my main point is the micromanagement involved in such precise delineations of what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps (especially given the other resources, however meager, that may be at recipients' disposal to buy the occasional Coke).

But I must give the mayor credit--he is not shy about his intentions, saying:

This initiative will give New York families more money to spend on foods and drinks that provide real nourishment.

And that's the crux of the issue: the mayor will decide which "foods and drinks provide real nourishment" for the city's 1.7 million food stamp recipients. Of course, he has already made that choice for all New York City residents insofar as he banned trans fats from restaurants. But limiting the use of food stamps is no less paternalistic for the welfare program aspect of the situation; restricting welfare assistance to food is limiting enough, but giving recipients a state-approved shopping list is going too far.

You can't make every New Yorker healthy, Mayor Bloomberg. But you can respect their choices, and let them bear the consequences of their actions. Even a real parent would do that.


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