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.