Oct 172011
 

Owen Courrèges

Last week, I was waiting in line at the local corner grocery and both lanes were open.  One lane was taken up by a woman and the other by a man, who appeared to be husband and wife.  I didn’t understand why they were checking out separately until the woman whipped out her Louisiana Purchase Card.

For those who are unaware, the Louisiana Purchase Card is the Electronic Bank Transfer card used in the administration of Louisiana’s food stamp program.  Virtually every state does it this way.  In Texas, for example, they have “Lone Star” cards (because apparently they want their food stamps closely associated with the state flag).

Anyway, back to the story: the woman was clearly buying food.  I saw a few canned goods and fruits and vegetables; all upstanding items of singular virtue.  No junk food.  Her total came to around $10.  Next, she asked for some cigarettes from the clerk and handed them across the aisle to the man, who had a twelve pack of beer (I think it way Keystone Light).  His total also came to around $10, but he paid cash.

I’m not criticizing these grocery patrons for wanting to buy beer and cigarettes.  Far from it; I don’t typically trust people without some obvious, unhealthy vices.  I look at those who neither smoke nor drink with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  They may be talking “health” and “virtue” but all I see is wasted potential.

However, I couldn’t help but think that the Louisiana Purchase Card was plainly subsidizing beer and cigarettes.

Think about it.  Money is fungible, so if you pay for a person’s basic needs and they use the surplus to pay for their vices, you’re really paying for their vices, not their needs.  For example, if you pay all my living expenses, and instead of working on legal stuff I use my new-found free time to build a nuclear bomb to destroy New Zealand (those blasted Kiwis and their pastoral landscapes), then technically you’ve paid to have New Zealand destroyed.

I say “technically” because obviously if you take pity on my legal practice and choose to spare me the drudgery of the law, you probably aren’t intending that I find my calling in the destruction of New Zealand.  That would be my choice in this hypothetical.  I could have spent my time helping the poor, enjoying recreational activities, or stepped up my column-writing to educate the masses (or indoctrinate — same difference).

The same is true with the couple I saw.  Instead of beer and cigarettes, they could have been squirreling away money for any number of positive things -– tuition for classes to get a better job, a nest egg for retirement, or a down payment on a house. I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same choice in their shoes, considering that beer and cigarettes offer instant gratification in a world where tomorrow you could be gunned down in the street or hit by a bus.

On the other hand, society obviously isn’t handing out Louisiana Purchase Cards so the poor can have enough money to smoke and drink.  Society hands out these cards so that people don’t go hungry, and hopefully so they can eventually climb their way out of poverty.

Libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke has some interesting writings on this topic.  As O’Rourke quips, “the biblical injunction is to clothe the naked, not to style them.”  He observes that an American citizen can make more money than 93% of the people in the world and still be considered “poor.”  Most poor Americans own luxury items that were unattainable for middle class a few generations ago.  The poor today are significantly better off financially than the middle class were during the roaring 1920’s.

Of course, this is not to say we should cut food stamps, especially now.  Food stamps aren’t a major drag on the budget.  If there’s abuse, it is manageable and a sideshow compared to the real spending issues facing Washington.

Still, I find myself wincing a bit in those situations where I know my tax dollars are subsidizing the vices of others.  It’s a painful reminder that persistent poverty can’t be solved by throwing money at government programs.  We, as New Orleanians, know this all too well.  President Johnson’s grand “war on poverty” heralded our worst years, the beginning of New Orleans’ decline in population.

Much of the problem is cultural, and much of it is borne of government policy.  What is clear, though, is that the problem is ongoing.  Heck, we can see it at the grocery counter.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • Blackbird

    How do you know they’re not “squirreling away money”? You don’t. You made a snap judgement while waiting in line behind these people. It’s okay. We all do it, all day long, every day. I kind of get the feeling that maybe you’ve never been on food stamps. Maybe you’ve never been sunk so low that you needed that kind of help. Let me tell you, when you live like that, you KNOW you’re never going to afford a down payment on a house and you’re gonna work until you die, so why not enjoy yourself now? The money they would save from NOT buying, say, one pack of cigarettes a day would not even come close to what you need for a down payment, and many people who are in poverty or close to it don’t have bank accounts, so it’s harder for them to save money for things like retirement. When you’re that low on the totem pole (and yes, I’ve been there) there is NO MONEY for savings and you take what pleasures you can get. I’m not really advocating their smoking habit, but what I’m saying is it’s pretty judgmental to use the “My tax dollars shouldn’t pay for your ____” line when you have no idea who these people are, what their situation is, how many taxes they might pay, and what their (possibly miserable) lives might be like. Everyone needs to blow off steam somehow, even the poor. In this couple’s case, they smoke. Cut ’em some slack.

    • Owen Courreges

      Blackbird,

      How do you know they’re not “squirreling away money”? You don’t.

      I know they weren’t squirreling away the money they were spending on beer and cigarettes, which is what I was referring to.

      The money they would save from NOT buying, say, one pack of cigarettes a day would not even come close to what you need for a down payment, and many people who are in poverty or close to it don’t have bank accounts, so it’s harder for them to save money for things like retirement.

      Ok, so now you’re assuming that they aren’t saving at all. On the other hand, I’m assuming that they could be using the money for something more productive — if not a down payment on a house, then something else. My point is not that the poor shouldn’t smoke or drink, and I don’t advocate cutting food stamps. My only point is that government can offer to pay for food, but in reality it is paying for something else if the people in the program can already afford food.

      Everyone needs to blow off steam somehow, even the poor. In this couple’s case, they smoke. Cut ‘em some slack.

      I have no problem with people smoking, but should they really be able to afford a smoking habit when they’re on food stamps? Should the government be subsidizing peoples’ vices and luxuries? Those are the questions I’m trying to raise.

      • alpelican

        The government subsidizes war, which I don’t like. The government subsidizes Monsanto, which I really don’t like. The government subsidizes home ownership through the mortgage interest deduction – at the expense of renters everywhere – which I don’t like and isn’t particularly fair.

        What I’m not doing by using these examples is picking on poor people during an economic crisis. Find another punching bag!

        • Owen Courreges

          alpelican,

          What I’m not doing by using these examples is picking on poor people during an economic crisis. Find another punching bag!

          I’m not using the poor as a punching bag. I’m musing on whether we’re really helping the poor by subsidizing their vices. That is not the intention of the food stamp program.

          • alpelican

            The food stamp program is actually called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The internet is littered with quality research about the effectiveness of this program as a literal bulwark against hunger and its associated consequences in this country, and particularly, its responsiveness as a policy initiative during economic downturns.

            You could start by looking at the basic program statistics put out by the USDA, where you’ll notice that nearly half of SNAP recipients are children. If you are so concerned about the fungibility of money in a household budget where milk is a luxury, you are just operating on a different level than I am, I guess.

            SNAP is one of the best programs we offer as a nation to our citizens. We should be looking to increase benefits and decrease stigma. We should be making it easier to access benefits, not make it more shameful to use them.

  • AveryPorter

    My frustration with people who use these cards is that they almost always have a nicer car, cell phone, purse and clothes than I do. I don’t qualify but shop at Goodwill and have the basic free phone. If they can afford the other luxuries, I know they can buy groceries. It’s hard and you have to cut your budget, but it can be done.

  • Rachel

    Interesting. I tend to feel that the government supports a whole LOT of things I do not, as far as spending, and that the amount spent on food stamps is a drop in the bucket. I agree that someone too poor to feed himself probably shouldn’t be buying beer or cigarettes. On the other hand a government in debt probably shouldn’t even consider cutting taxes. A woman whose savings aren’t large enough should probably never buy a nice dress. In fact, from a moral standpoint, can one ever justify buying a nice dress (or beer or cigarettes)? Shouldn’t a person with such excess monies use them to better the world somehow? Eh to passing judgment on others. It’s just too easy and therefore boring.

    • Owen Courreges

      Rachel,

      When you’re using you own money, I think you can spend it as you like. My point, however, is that a person receiving food stamps isn’t really spending their own money. As my column clearly states, I’m not being judgmental — but I do wince when government is essentially subsidizing beer and cigarettes for the poor, and I’d like to think that if I were on public assistance, I’d wince a bit myself if I were buying equal parts food and beer/cigarettes.

      • Rachel

        Understood, and I think (or at least certainly hope) I’d wince, too. My own point was more this one: there are a lot of both people and institutions spending money that “isn’t really theirs” courtesy of our government. And this, to me, is a less offensive use than many others. I am not saying I LOVE buying cigarettes and beer for the poor, but I prefer it to plenty of other things the government does with my tax money.

  • JK

    Owen, I think you are missing the real problem here. What drives me nuts is the fact that by splitting up their transactions, food stamp users make me wait in line longer!

    In all seriousness, while I would use food stamps if needed, it would be a last resort. I know this might sound evil, but when it comes to food stamps, there should be some shame involved. If you have money for vices, you should not be taking handouts. This is why college students eat Top Ramen.

    • alpelican

      Because being poor doesn’t suck enough… you should feel shame, too! Forget any human dignity – you’re on public assistance!

      Seriously, are you missing a compassion gene?

      • JK

        Well, I did say that my comment might sound evil…

        But seriously, what should one feel when one takes public assistance? One should feel something, right? I called it shame. Maybe I should call it “the feeling that one is relying on the goodwill of the community.” Maybe I should call it “a profound sense of gratitude.” I could think of many ways to call this feeling. In any case, maybe, and just maybe, that feeling inside should say:

        “Hey, since I am lucky enough to get assistance from my fellow citizens, I will chill on drinking and smoking until I get my affairs in order.”

        I don’t know, am I missing a compassion gene? You tell me.

        • Owen Courreges

          JK,

          Your bottom line is correct — people on public assistance shouldn’t feel entitled. If you feel as if the world owes you a living, you’re not going to better yourself. You’re not going to use the resources you have to improve your situation. On the other hand, if you feel grateful or ashamed or have any kind of negative reaction to having to take public assistance, you’re more likely to use less of it and not simply be comfortable with barely getting by. Society does not benefit one bit when people on the dole feel as if they are *owed* the dole.

          Another thing from P.J. O’Rourke; Once when he was visiting a public housing complex, he interviewed a woman who was complaining about the management for allowing the situation there to deteriorate. In response, P.J. O’Rourke suggested to her a policy whereby her rent, instead of just being rent, would essentially be a no-downpayment mortgage so that she could eventually own her housing unit. She wouldn’t pay a dime more and would get an ownership interest. The woman just kept repeating “I don’t want none of that.”

          I think there are those on public assistance who are too comfortable with it and don’t want more personal responsibility under any circumstances. That’s a problem.

    • Owen Courreges

      JK,

      Owen, I think you are missing the real problem here. What drives me nuts is the fact that by splitting up their transactions, food stamp users make me wait in line longer!

      Frankly, that’s what made me notice what they were doing to begin with — that they were taking up both lanes to split up their transaction.

      I do agree with you about the shame aspect. People should use public assistance as a last resort. I think most of the responsibility rests with the government, which should only offer assistance to those truly in need, but at the same time it’s easier to manage when the poor self-select due to cultural factors.

  • For what it’s worth — and at the risk of putting words in Owen’s mouth — I read this more as a meditation on how difficult it is for society to effectively combat poverty than any sort of slam against food stamp recipients. Owen doesn’t typically mince words here, so I think if he thought the food stamp program or even its abuse was the real problem, he would suggest ending or at least cutting it. But he does the opposite — he says he doesn’t favor that approach — and in fact offers no “solution” at all. He’s just pointing out that instead of “food stamps” strictly feeding their recipients, they also help them buy beer and smokes. So, is there a more effective way to fight poverty? That’s the question I think this column was asking.

    • I read it the same way.

    • alpelican

      There is a more effective way to fight poverty – give people money. Just plain straight-up cash transfers. But then *those* people would have nice things that they, of course, don’t deserve, because they’re poor. That is why Owen didn’t argue for cash transfers, because then those poor people would just buy cigarettes with it. Or maybe they would just pay their rent and buy school clothes for their kids – and then how would he feel superior?

    • Owen Courreges

      Robert,

      You hit the nail on the head. I think the government can find better ways of helping the poor than throwing money at them. Since money is fungible, any direct subsidies are essentially paying for the least necessary items. Thus, food stamps tend to pay for luxuries instead of actual food. I don’t blame the recipients for desiring luxuries and being self-interested. We’re all that way. I wish there was still a cultural stigma against public assistance, but that’s not an individual issue.

    • Blackbird

      I did not read it that way. I read it as a judgement against people who are already pretty low. Not only do they need food stamps, not only do they have addictions (because if you were poor, you’d TOTALLY DO EVERYTHING RIGHT), now they need to feel shame about it and the author gets to use the “Why should MY taxes pay for ____” line. No one’s even touched on the subject of just how damn hard it is to quit smoking, and how the more stressful your life is the HARDER it is to do that. Instead you’ve just talked about how they should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t feel that way, but then again, I’ve actually been on food stamps, it was the lowest point of my life, I was an addicted smoker at the time, and I saw everyone judging me every time I checked out, whether I was buying smokes or not. So yeah, I’ve got a different perspective, I guess. Normally I’m down with what Owen has to say, but not this time.

      • Owen Courreges

        Blackbird,

        No one’s even touched on the subject of just how damn hard it is to quit smoking, and how the more stressful your life is the HARDER it is to do that.

        Ok, then let’s create “cigarette stamps” for poor people addicted to cigarettes and stop the farce that we’re feeding the hungry. If you don’t think that would be appropriate, then I don’t see why you’d disagree that it’s improper for people to use food stamps to free up cash for cigarettes. It’s the same thing, and it isn’t really helping the poor make a better life for themselves. That was my point, and it’s a pretty clear one.

  • Combating poverty is very difficult, from a policy standpoint.

    SNAP benefits aren’t designed to “combat poverty,” at least in an immediate sense. They are designed so less Americans go hungry, and if that’s the bar that is set, it is a very, very effective program. I remember the mile-long line of people waiting outside the Convention Center to sign up for temporary benefits in 2008, because all the hourly-wage workers couldn’t work for a week because of the Gustav evacuation.

    Plenty of those folks still had $10 in their pocket, or cigarettes in their purses, or beer in a cooler back at the house. But they needed those benefits because – while you can get cigarettes and beer for $10 – you can’t feed a family for a week of lost minimum wage.

    That being said, I also recognize how infuriating it can be to see individuals who appear to be gaming the system or taking any advantage of any government program designed so that children, senior citizens, the disabled, and able bodied adults down on their luck can continue to eat. When you see anyone cutting corners, it can be maddening from an emotional standpoint, even if you know the program mostly helps people that desperately need it.

    Thing is, anything we do is going to have corner-cutters and folks taking advantage somewhere along the line. Any organization or program is going to run into pathologies present in human nature. Despite the immediate and natural recation of “how dare they,” people have to look past that and think about how many people in need who are actually eating tonight.

    • Owen Courreges

      Cousin Pat,

      When you see anyone cutting corners, it can be maddening from an emotional standpoint, even if you know the program mostly helps people that desperately need it.

      My point in a nutshell. I don’t want the program cut because it would probably hurt those who actually need it. I know SNAP is difficult to apply for and that the benefits aren’t really that generous, but at the same time it’s pretty brazen for people on food stamps to take up two lanes to buy equal parts food (with food stamps) and cigarettes/beer (with the cash they could have spent on the food).

      I think some people think that because food stamps can only be spent on food, the government is only subsidizing food for the poor. My point was that this isn’t the case — if people use more than they actually need, government is paying for something else, and it’s generally something you and I wouldn’t want to pay for.

  • Jean-Paul Villere

    Some times I wonder if Owen and Cousin Pat are the same person. You guys at least should have bar stools next to each other.

    And . . . “cigarette stamps” . . . LOL . . . that should be the headline for a followup.

    And alpelican, giving people “straight-up cash” is easily the worst idea on the table. On the upside, I know what you bring to birthday parties now.

    Lighten up, everybody. Hunger sucks. There are programs in place to combat it. Those programs can be improved upon. But giving kids ice cream from Walgreens via SNAP is frankly wrong.