America's Food Stamp Culture

Many Americans can remember a time when a Coca-Cola was a treat: You had one now and then. But most middle-class Americans didn't drink Coca-Cola and similar carbonated drinks all the time, as if they were water. For one thing, it was too expensive to do that for most individuals and most families.

Today, that's no longer the case.

Today, a Coca-Cola is an entitlement in America. But it's not an entitlement for everybody. Rather, it's an entitlement for people who have fallen on hard times or are permanently stuck in them -- people who are on America's growing food stamp dole.

Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for a ban to prohibit the city's 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using their federal food allowance to buy sugary soda drinks. Ostensibly, Bloomberg is concerned about health-related problems for New Yorkers on food stamps. After all, large numbers of them are fat or suffering from diabetes, and one reason for this, say health experts, is their large consumption of all those empty calories in sugary drinks popular among low-income New Yorkers -- mainly blacks and Hispanics on the food stamp dole. They're suffering from what Bloomberg's office calls an "obesity epidemic." Indeed, in New York City's public schools, 46 percent of Hispanic children, 40 percent of African-American children, and 40 percent of all children are overweight or obese -- according to Bloomberg's office. The problem is substantially worse in low-income areas, said the mayor's office.

Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican and now an independent, is not so politically foolish as to suggest that many New Yorkers on food stamps are irresponsible people living in an "entitlement culture." But his call for a ban on using food stamps to buy sugary drinks amounts to the same thing because it would, if approved by Washington bureaucrats, force many food stamp recipients to adjust their lifestyles and make smarter supermarket purchases.

Bloomberg's proposal has gotten mostly positive reviews, with his two main critics being the nation's beverage lobby and libertarians who contend that food stamp recipients ought to be able to buy whatever they want. (Food stamp recipients, however, are prohibited from buying tobacco and alcohol -- two things that even libertarians are unlikely to say are entitlements for people suffering through hard times.)

Specifically, Bloomberg proposed a two-year ban on the use of food stamps to buy sugary drinks -- during which health experts would evaluate whether the ban was helping food stamp recipients lose some weight and reduce their high levels of diabetes.

Nationwide, 6 percent of food stamp benefits are spent on sugary beverages, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program.

Food Stamp Culture

The mayor's tough-love approach to New Yorkers on the food stamp dole comes as a record 41.8 million Americans -- including the children of illegal immigrants -- are getting monthly food stamp benefits. The average payout: $133.36 per person.

News accounts about record levels of food stamp use invariably note that the jobless rate is at a 27-year high -- yet curiously, food-stamp use has been in an upward spiral for years, with more than a few Americans becoming permanent users of the program, a fact that underscores the dangers of dependence.

Health issues aside, what Bloomberg really is targeting is behavior -- certain types of behavior revolving around impulse-buying and poor shopping decisions. All these things are more common among people who lack self-discipline and education and are prone to instant gratification. Generally, these pathologies are not found among middle-class taxpayers. But they're more commonly associated with people caught in a long-term culture of poverty, notes the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank. Among other common trappings of that culture: large numbers of single mothers, out-of-wedlock births, and children who drop out of school and drift into crime.

To be sure, millions of decent, hardworking Americans have through no fault of their own fallen on hard times. They couldn't rely on families or charities. So they got food stamps. They left the program when they got back on their feet. Unfortunately, they are unfairly stigmatized due to the millions of food stamp abusers who appear to be out there -- people not only living for years on food stamps, but, as many middle-class Americans have observed at the grocery stores, making some rather odd purchases with food stamps...or to be precise, with government-issued debit cards that long ago replaced food-stamp booklets.

Those debit cards look and work just like a bank card or credit card. For better or worse, the days are gone when food stamp recipients had to embarrass themselves by whipping out a food stamp booklet for all to see.

Everybody I know has a story about a food stamp abuser ahead of him or her in the shopping line. Recently at a convenience store, I stood behind an overweight woman buying lottery tickets. Then she used her food stamp debit card to buy a cold Starbucks coffee drink and some snacks.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America also are big food stamp users. Illegal immigrants can't get food stamps, to be sure. But as one of the Middle Eastern store clerks cheerfully told me, their American-born anchor kids do qualify. The General Accounting Office estimated in 1995 that $1.1 billion in welfare and food stamp benefits were provided to illegal immigrants with U.S.-born children -- a number that's surely much higher today.

None of this should imply that the food stamp program is catering entirely to hustlers and abusers. Yet as the food stamp rolls have increased over the years, the program clearly has become more than a temporary aid program to ensure that low-income children and adults are getting proper nutrition. Now, they're entitled as well to a Coca-Cola, junk food and candy, or even some bottled water -- the last of which I've also seen food-stamp users buy.

Presumably, people accustomed to buying bottled water would switch to tap water after falling on tough economic times. But in today's entitlement culture, many Americans regard food stamps as a way to maintain the lifestyles they had during better days -- or to use them to obtain a lifestyle they never had.

Admittedly, I have a middle-class perspective, having grown up in a well-off family in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, a Coca-Cola was considered a treat. At breakfast we had orange juice from frozen concentrate, and for lunch and dinner there was iced tea or lemonade that my mom made from scratch. Or there was ice water -- and the water came from the tap, for bottled water was not yet fashionable.

Interestingly, the mainstream media has described soaring food stamp use with a singular narrative: that it's related entirely to the soaring unemployment rate. There's hardly a mention of widespread food stamp abuse and long-term dependence over the years, something that many Americans, including New York's mayor, sense is a problem. According to the Heritage Foundation, one half of food stamp recipients have gotten aid for 8.5 years or more.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal had a sympathetic piece on food stamp recipients that portrayed them as increasingly desperate, living from one food stamp payment to the next. Yet the article, "These Families Shop When Aid Arrives," was revealing in ways that reporter Miguel Bustillo probably never intended.

The article noted that in Houston, supposedly desperate food stamp recipients rush over to the local Wal-Mart at midnight on the first of the month; that's when their debit cards are replenished by the federal government. Yet Bustillo undercut his intriguing premise about the midnight buying spree when quoting one Wal-Mart spokesperson, who he noted had "stressed that the number of shoppers involved at midnight is relatively minor compared with peak periods such as weekends." Still, Bustillo got other Wal-Mart executives to say there was a surge of customers at midnight on the first of the month. It was enough to justify the story's intriguing yet problematic premise.

Desperate Shoppers?

So who were these supposedly desperate Wal-Mart shoppers?

All were black or Hispanic. Most appeared to be overweight, according to photos of them in a slide show accompanying the Journal's online article. At least one was a single mother buying baby food. One couple was identified as Simon and Angelica Rodriguez -- ages 17 and 15, respectively -- who were buying baby formula for their 6-month-old son Jordan, who was with them.

Among the more interesting food stamp users was Tyrel Fogle, 26, a young man with a physique out of Gold's Gym whose body was covered with tattoos. He was shopping with his pregnant girlfriend. "We're not starving or anything, but we come every month at 11:55," he explained, while loading up an overweight housemate's car with groceries. One photo in the slide show was of Fogle and his girlfriend with a carton of bottled water at the checkout aisle -- an expense that many middle-class people would consider foolish if they suddenly found their finances strained.

Fogel's girlfriend, 21-year-old Brittany Cummings, said, "We have enough to survive. But not much more." In photos of the couple's groceries, one can see a big bag of potato chips, prepared frozen-food meals, and what appears to be a bag of snacks.

According to the Journal, Fogle had "just found work as a washer at a glass company after months of fruitless searching."

It would be fascinating to know more about this couple -- know more about their backgrounds and upbringings. Both are seemingly young and able-bodied adults. It's interesting that neither appears to have been embarrassed by talking with a reporter about being food-stamp recipients. Fogle, intriguingly, does have a MySpace page that readers will definitely find interesting.

None of this will surprise the folks at the Heritage Foundation who have studied food stamp use. "Of the aid going to families with children, some 85 percent goes to children in single parent or no parent families," reported the think-tank. "Only 15 percent goes to married couples with children."

Occasionally, I visit a local Wal-Mart late at night. I've been amazed at the people I see there. Generally, they're scruffy-looking shoppers you wouldn't find living in an orderly middle-class neighborhood -- nor would you find them at Wal-Mart during the day. More than a few are totting kids -- even though it's midnight or later, and presumably the kids need to be in school the next day. Definitely, it's not a scene you'd encounter during a more innocent time in America: the 1950s and early 1960s, an era when TV shows like "Leave it to Beaver" reflected the values and mores of middle-class suburbia -- an oasis of order and individual responsibility.

Interestingly, that charming, all-American television series revolving around the Cleaver family ended in 1963 -- one year after socialist writer Michael Harrington shamed Americans with his seminal book on poverty in America. It was aptly titled The Other America.

Why were many poor Americans sometimes overweight and even obese back then? It was, Harrington explained, because they were poor and unable to afford decent food, and so they were "fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do." Harrington's book was credited with spurring President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs aimed at abolishing poverty. One of those myriad social programs, enacted in 1964, was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

Yet despite food stamps and myriad other social programs created by big-spending liberals, poor Americans are more unhealthy than ever -- overweight and even obese, and suffering high levels of diabetes. Contrary to what Harrington argued, poor Americans are unhealthy because of their personal choices and lifestyles. It's likely that many are poor for the same reasons.

Mayor Bloomberg has made a good start at food stamp reform by attempting to rein in a program that, ironically, has caused more harm than good for many (though certainly not all) recipients. He has much work to do.