Should The State Forbid Buying Fish with Food Stamps?
Some states have passed or are considering laws that would restrict what government aid can be used to purchase. One apparently pro-active approach, taken by my adopted state of Florida, has been to weed out drug users by requiring recipients of aid to pass a drug test. In Missouri, there has been an effort to prevent food stamp recipients from using their aid to buy steak or seafood. In Kansas a proposed law forbids people receiving government assistance from using those funds to visit swimming pools, buy movie tickets, gamble or get tattoos.
While these proposals and policies are fueled primarily by unwarranted stereotypes of the poor, it is possible to argue in their favor and two such arguments will be considered. Both arguments share a common principle, namely that the state needs to protect certain citizens from harm (which is a reasonable principle). The first argument centers on the need for the state to protect the poor from their poor decision making. The second focuses on the need to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor.
The first argument is essentially an appeal to paternalism: the poor are incapable of making their own good decisions and thus the wisdom of the lawmakers must guide them. If left unguided, the poor will waste their limited government support on things like drugs, gambling, tattoos, steak and lobsters. This approach certainly has a philosophical pedigree. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the compulsive power of the state should be used to compel the citizens to be virtuous. Other thinkers, usually those who favor totalitarianism, also find the idea of such paternalism very appealing.
Despite the pedigree of this approach, it is always reasonable to inquire as to whether a law is actually needed or not. In the case of a law that forbids, the obvious line of inquiry is to investigate the extent to which people engage in the behavior that is supposed to be forbidden by the law.
Despite the anecdotal evidence of Fox News’ infamous welfare surfer, there seems to be little evidence that people who receive state aid are blowing their state aid on strip clubs, drugs, steak or lobster. Rather, the poor (like almost everyone else) spend most of their money on things like housing and non-luxury food. In regards to drugs, people on support are no more likely than anyone else to be using them. As such, unless it can be clearly shown that a significant percentage of aid recipients are engaged in such “poor choices”, these laws would seem to be solutions in search of a problem.
It is also reasonable to consider whether or not a law is morally consistent in regards to how all citizens are treated. If the principle at work is that recipients of state money must be guided by the state because they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, then this must be extended to all recipients of such money. This would include farmers getting subsidies, companies getting government contracts, government employees, recipients of tax breaks (such as the mortgage tax breaks), and so on. This is all government aid.
This is a matter of moral consistency—if some citizens must be subject to strict restrictions on how the state money can be spent and perhaps pass a drug test before getting it, then the same must apply to all citizens. Unless, of course, a relevant difference can be shown.
It could be argued that the poor, despite the lack of evidence, are simply more wasteful and worse at spending decisions than the rest of the population. While this does match the stereotypical narrative that some like to push, it does not seem to match reality. After all, billions of dollars simply vanished in Iraq. One does not need to spend much time on Google to find multitudes of examples of how non-poor recipients of state money wasted it or blew it on luxuries.
It could then be argued that extending this principle to everyone would be a good idea. After all, people who are not poor make bad decisions with state money and this shows that they are in need of the guiding wisdom of the state and strict control. Of course, this would result in a paternalistic (or “nanny” as some prefer) state that so many self-proclaimed small government freedom lovers professes to dislike.
Obviously, it is also important to consider whether or not a law will be more harmful or more beneficial. While it could be argued that the poor would be better off if compelled by the state to spend their aid money on what the state deems they should spend it on, there is still the fact that these policies and proposals are solutions in search of a problem. That is, these laws would not benefit people because they are typically not engaged in wasteful spending to begin with.
There is also the moral concern about the harm done to the autonomy and dignity of the recipients of the aid. It is, after all, an assault on a person’s dignity to assume that she is wasteful and bad at making decisions. It is an attack on a person’s autonomy to try to control him, even for his own good.
It might be countered that if the poor accept the state’s money, then they must accept the restrictions imposed by the state. While this does have some appeal, consistency would (as noted above) require this to be applied to everyone getting state money. Which includes the rich. And the people passing such laws. Presumably they would not like to be treated this way and consistency would seem to require that they treat others as they would wish to be treated.
The second main argument for such restrictions is based on the claim that they are needed to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor. While some do contend that any amount of state aid is too much and is theft from the taxpayers (the takers stealing from the makers), such restrictions at least accept that the poor should receive some aid. But, this aid must be for essentials and not wasted—otherwise the taxpayers’ money is being (obviously enough) wasted.
As was discussed above, an obvious point of concern is whether or not such waste is occurring at a level that justifies the compulsive power of the state being employed. As noted above, these proposals and policies seem to be solutions in search of a problem. As a general rule, laws and restrictions should not be imposed without adequate justification and this seems lacking in this case.
This is not to say that people should not be concerned that taxpayer money is being wasted or spent unwisely. It, in fact, is. However, this is not a case of the clever poor milking the middleclass and the rich. Rather, it is a case of the haves milking the have-less. One prime example of this is wealthfare, much of which involves taxpayer money going to subsidize and aid those who are already quite well off, such as corporations. So, I do agree that the taxpayer needs to be protected from exploitation. But, the exploiters are not the poor. This should be rather obvious—if they were draining significant resources from the rest of the citizens, they would no longer be poor.
But, some might still insist, the poor really are spending their rather small aid money on steak, lobsters, strip clubs and gambling. One not unreasonable reply is that “man does not live by bread alone” and it does not seem wrong that the poor would also have a chance to enjoy the tiny luxuries or fun that their small amount of aid can buy. Assuming, of course, that they are not spending everything on food and shelter. I would certainly not begrudge a person an occasional steak or beer. Or a swim in a pool. I do, of course, think that people should spend wisely, but that is another matter.