Why SNAP Might Be the Least-Bad Welfare Program | National Review

Why SNAP Might Be the Least-Bad Welfare Program | National Review

A shopper browses for fruits at a grocery store in Pasadena, California, June 11, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Biden recently approved a 25 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, otherwise known as food stamps, following a reassessment of the thrifty food plan, which is defined by the Department of Agriculture as “the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.” As a result, the average beneficiary of SNAP would enjoy a $36 increase in SNAP benefits for grocery shopping per month.

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack maintains that “a modernized Thrifty Food Plan is more than a commitment to good nutrition — it’s an investment in our nation’s health, economy, and security.” The increased SNAP benefits will cost $20 billion.

The Right, on principle, is rarely thrilled by significant increases in federal welfare spending. Libertarians, who may see welfare programs funded by taxpayer dollars as the government coercing citizens to help one another, often reject any kind of increase in size of the welfare state on principle. Conservatives who generally prefer a smaller federal government, on the other hand, often advocate for the privatization of welfare. The administrative costs involved in public welfare programs have also often invited doubt to the efficiency of such allocation of resources. However, stepping back from the idealized vision of welfare through private charity, the welfare state has become an institution which is too entrenched in the social consciousness, with a base of beneficiaries too large, to be abolished without overwhelming opposition. Welfare programs are also potential solutions to social problems such as hunger, poverty, and lack of economic mobility, which some progressives fervently advocate to be solved by socialism or radical redistribution of income. From a realist perspective, one could argue that conservatives benefit to a certain extent from the survival of the welfare state.

So, if we’re going to have welfare, we should acknowledge that SNAP is one of the better existing welfare programs the government offers. It is tailored to address the specific, pressing social ills of poverty and food security, both of which could have dire effects on society if allowed to fester. It is a means-tested program and will specifically confer benefits to the most destitute segment of the American population. The concept of food stamps is in line with the conservative principle that welfare should not be a tool for the distribution of income, and instead should only provide a basic safety net to ensure survival of impoverished citizens in prevention and mitigation of the adverse societal consequences of poverty. SNAP is one of the less controversial and objected welfare programs implemented at the federal level. SNAP benefits, given their narrow purposes and fixed sum, are also less likely to be misused than other welfare programs that confer more capacity for discretion to the beneficiaries. (Which is not to say food-stamp fraud does not occur.) For instance, Medicaid, the public health-insurance program for low-income citizens, can encourage expensive and unnecessary procedures, which the federal government may not have intended to sponsor, and may divert resources from more worthwhile purposes.

Welfare benefits in kind are also far preferable to simple cash payments. If benefits in kind, such as food stamps, can effectively alleviate poverty and hunger, there would be less reason for proponents of a larger welfare state to advocate for cash benefits. One of the commonly raised argument is that cash benefits would more directly and efficiently aid beneficiaries’ livelihood than SNAP and other welfare programs, which are too inefficiently run and hardly induce a sufficient betterment of living standards to beneficiaries.

Although the American welfare system traditionally distributes mostly in-kind benefits, recent COVID-relief checks have suggested an increasing willingness on the part of the federal government to disburse direct cash payments. Yet such payments not only potentially attract more fraud, but also more directly redistribute income. Cash benefits are, by definition, perfectly liquid and transferrable. While COVID-relief may be effective in stimulating economic recovery by contributing to aggregate consumption, they may be less useful in addressing specific issues of concern, such as food security. After all, how the recipients utilize their benefits is beyond the control of administrators of the program.

So even though the welfare budget is increasing by $20 billion, at least the money is going to the least-bad welfare program.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.