Food Stamps for Fat People

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If ever there was a clear example of the welfare state’s self-destructive tendency, this perhaps ranks top on the list: giving food stamps to people no matter how fat
With two-thirds of Americans overweight, obesity-related health spending at almost $150 billion per year, federal debt growing out of control and no one in Washington able to find anywhere to cut, let me suggest--right herre! Even if you believe in forced charity and central planning (as do both major parties), it makes no sense to give free food--including junk food--to overweight people, on the excuse that they would otherwise starve
But that’s what the Feds have been doing since the Food Stamp Act of 1964 made free food an entitlement to poor people of all sizes and appetites. After a brief period of experimenting with a similar scheme from 1939 to 1943, and then again as a pilot plan in 1961, the program can now safely be called “permanent.” 
(No offense is meant towards folks who weigh above the norm, especially those who pay for their own meals or have the decency to find a voluntary source of free food. How much you eat or how little you exercise is none of my business . . . unless you expect me to pay for it.) 
Like America’s bulging waistline, the Food Stamps Program has grown to where it now reaches over 36 million participants and costs over $40 billion a year, according to the 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture budget. That excludes an additional $21 billion in federal spending for school lunches and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. 
Both the $40 billion federal price tag and 36 million recipients far exceed the initial USDA projections, even accounting for inflation and population growth. Wikipedia states that during the sales pitch for the Food Stamp Act of 1964, “The Agriculture Department estimated that participation in a national FSP (Food Stamp Program) would eventually reach 4 million, at a cost of $360 million annually.” 
With mind-boggling numbers like billions of dollars spent on millions of recipients, it’s easy to forget that many (hopefully most) of the individuals on food stamps could benefit from the dignity that comes from working and taking personal responsibility, and that none of them deserve to be exploited for selfish gain. But the army of government agents who get paid to review every food stamp application just process their standardized forms and shovel out the cash. Then their political bosses remind us every two years: If you want to stay on the gravy train, remember me at the ballot box. 
It’s no wonder why the USDA consistently lobbies to expand their cherished program, as they openly admit. Like other federal agencies, the autocrats at USDA and their supervised state counterparts have been unleashed by Congress to write their own rules (found in Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations), enforce those rules (retail inspections, USDA Office of Inspector General) and judge those same rules (approving or denying applications from people and grocery stores). Even the most starry-eyed government fundamentalist should be concerned at the lack of checks and balances.  
But the USDA and its boosters diligently cast the agency’s thousands of unaccountable staffers as servant-heroes, wisely dispensing other people’s money unto only those truly in need. (Vintage food stamp mythology is available here. Current praise for government food programs is found throughout the Old Guard media, including this recent example from the New York Times.) Since the USDA doesn’t technically make a profit, we’re told that their motives must be pure. They even have a “Healthy Eating Index for low-income persons” to prove it! 
Solution to the obesity “crisis”: give out more FREE food! 
Another potential area of savings is on health care expenses, which government officials claim to be deeply concerned about bringing down. “Overall obesity-related health spending reaches $147 billion, double what it was nearly a decade ago” according to a widely cited study by the journal Health Affairs this summer. That same CBS/AP article led off saying: 
Obesity’s not just dangerous, it’s expensive. New research shows medical spending averages $1,400 more a year for an obese person than for someone who’s normal weight. 
But obesity’s apparently not “dangerous” enough for anyone among the governing elite to suggest we stop subsidizing it with free food.  
Yet punishing overweight working Americans with higher health insurance premiums is fair game, according to Congress and its allies. The Washington Post (Oct. 15) favorably reported on “wellness incentives” to “prompt workers to make healthier choices.” Those incentives are currently limited at 20 percent of premiums but are proposed by Congress to climb to 50 percent. With annual family health coverage averaging $13,375, that wellness penalty could cost nearly $6,700. But only for working people with employer-sponsored health plans. 
For non-workers, such cruelty is out of the question. Instead of considering any hint of personal responsibility among the non-working class (you’re overweight . . . you can buy your own food) or possibly scaling back a bloated federal program, health officials are exploiting America’s rise in obesity to argue for even more central planning. Current agitation centers around new taxes on everything from soda to snack foods to fast food chains. Other schemes include: “tax subsidies to encourage the purchase of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables” (LA Times) and “building more supermarkets in poor neighborhoods” (CBS/AP). 
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was attributed by Reuters as calling “for more physical education classes for children and investments to encourage walking, biking and use of public transportation.” Putting those capitol ideas into practice, “Officials at historically black Lincoln University” near Philadelphia recently enacted a “requirement that overweight undergraduates take a fitness course” three hours per week or else be denied graduating (AP). 
Who would have guessed obesity could be such a gold mine for the state? 
USDA marketing spin: free food = “nutrition” 
The USDA and its supporters would rather not talk about overweight people who consume their free food. Instead, the current buzz-words are “nutrition” and “health.” Having soiled the phrase “food stamp,” Congress required USDA in October 1, 2008 to give the program a facelift, recasting it as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  
Of course, using the words “health” and “nutrition” are misleading, since the agency doesn’t even attempt to limit food stamp usage to only “nutritious” food, whatever that is. The USDA’s Food Stamp Program Training Guide for Retailers (page 11) states: 
The goal of the Food Stamp Program is to help low-income households have healthy diets. Households CAN use food stamp benefits to buy:
- all food intended to be eaten at home. This includes . . . snack foods, soft drinks, candy . . .
The USDA doesn’t explain how a bag of Doritos, a 2-liter jug of Mountain Dew and a handful of Snickers bars fit into their health pyramid. But they insist, overweight Americans need those essential items--for free--to obtainain optimal nutrition. Luckily for Washington, plenty of boosters in the media still peddle the distortion that food stamps are only used “for staples like milk, bread and cheese” (New York Times). 
USDA’s “success story” with black women 
If food stamps had a net benefit on health and nutrition, one would expect the group with the highest participation rate in the program to reap the greatest rewards. But reality is just the opposite.
The group with the highest food stamp participation rate, for whatever reason, is black women. As of 2007, USDA reported that “68 percent of nonelderly adult [food stamp] participants were women.” The USDA’s race trackers also say that 41 percent of food stamp participants are white; 36 percent are black; 18 percent are Hispanic; with 5 percent other races, as cited by Wikipedia. Since only 13 percent of the total U.S. population is black, the overall food stamp participate rate of blacks is about 277 percent of what their general population would suggest. 
That trend is confirmed in a recent New York Times celebration of how “Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades” that states: “Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive [food stamps]--28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites” among the general population. 
So, with blacks and women--and specifically black women--being the most likely to engage in consuming free “nutritious” food, one would expect most African-American females to resemble Halle Berry or maybe a more voluptuous Beyoncé. But that’s not that case. Most American black women--USDA’s target audience--are closer to Aretha Franklin or Oprah during her binge years. The evidence . . .
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from November 2007 reported (condensed here):
About 53 percent of black women ages 40-59 were obese, compared to about 39 percent of white women of the same age. Among women 60 and older, 61 percent of black women were obese, compared to 32 percent of white women.
A more recent government study cited by Reuters noted that “among African-American women, for instance, 78 percent are currently overweight or obese.” Society as a whole isn’t doing much better, with about 67 percent of the U.S. adult population already overweight. 
So there you have it. Black women have the highest rate of food stamp usage and also the highest rate of obesity. Yet none of the dozens of articles I found on this topic, or the dozens of professional health experts cited therein, could put these readily available facts together. 
For a more mainstream view on black obesity, we have USA Today’s revamp of the “happy slaves” argument. In a September 30th Op-Ed, black author and talk-radio host David Person acknowledged that “African Americans in the South (like me) are the group with the highest obesity rates.” To explain this phenomenon, he selects a government-licensed expert who declares:  
Black and Hispanic women are more accepting of their own body size than white women . . . . They are happy with their weight and less likely to try to lose weight.
The expert and writer don’t bother to provide any evidence of this fat-happy culture existing before the modern welfare state--or now, for that matter.
The over-educated dunces of big government and its media admirers all fail to see this link: the irresponsible lifestyle encouraged by welfare handouts, accompanied by threats of denied benefits to those who work (beyond 130 percent of a poverty income) and save (above a meager $2,000), encourages irresponsible eating and exercise behavior. Imagine that! 
And this has nothing to do with skin color. The underlying problem with any handout program, which forever eludes government enthusiasts, is that the welfare recipient adopts a pattern of entitlement, then passivity and helplessness, bitterness, fear and finally bondage. And it doesn’t matter if the welfare seeker is a white middle-class homeowner with a heavily subsidized mortgage, white parents who place their children in government-run schools, a massively socialized white farmer or perhaps a brown-skinned person who applies for free meals. The personal results are more or less the same, depending only on the level of dependency. The public results are a nation of passive fatties paralyzed by a state-induced fear against cutting any of their precious benefits. And $12 trillion in federal debt. 
How could USDA deny benefits to overweight citizens? 
Very easily--if they wanted to. For starters, since overweight people presumably know their condition, simply announcing any health-based screening criteria would most likely lead to self-assessments that would drop application rates overnight.
For cases where self-awareness doesn’t work, even the dullest government employee should require no more than 10 minutes to check an aspiring welfare seeker’s height and weight against a standard health chart. Since food stamp customers are generally required to make a personal visit to the local welfare office when applying for these benefits, with re-qualification typically every 12 months (as noted in USDA’s Characteristics of Food Stamp Households FY 2007 report), a periodic visit for weigh-in would be no undue burden. 
California alone boasts of having “over 240 food stamp offices . . . operated by local county welfare departments” where people “go to apply for food stamp benefits.” So limited access is no excuse.
In contrast to a 10-minute check of height and weight, the current food stamp application process takes up to 30 days or can be expedited to only seven days for “households with extremely low income” (per USDA guidelines). The cumbersome status quo paperwork shuffle involves government agents reviewing rent receipts, utility bills, paycheck stubs, bank statements and assorted other documents to calculate “net income” by subtracting various deductions in order to decipher eligibility. In contrast to that subjective, legalistic mess, taking a few physical measurements to verify that a person is obviously not starving is . . . almost easy enough for government work. 
But that would inject a small amount of personal responsibility into the system. And central planners loath that idea, because: if people are responsible, who needs government welfare?  
Which brings us back to the original question: Why are we giving free food to people who already eat too much?
If government can’t make this simple determination (and deny free food to overweight people), how can they make infinitely more complicated decisions regarding public funding of health care--including who gets generic drugs vs. expennsive drugs, what’s the right dosage and how long does treatment last, who gets surgery and who gets denied, and who waits for treatment and for how long? 
What next, a federal program to give free Hustler subscriptions to porn addicts suffering from sexual starvation (which experts say can be worse than physical hunger)? Don’t be judgmental! 
To address one obvious and weak argument for continuing on the present course, no doubt politicians (if asked) would reflexively hide behind “saving the children.” One can easily picture a welfare promoter sneering, “If you deny benefits to heavy parents, you’ll just end up hurting their children.” So a follow-up question would be: Are you saying that poor, overweight parents, if they are denied free food, will retaliate by starving their own children? Do socialists think poor people are really that crass? 
A reasonable person might ask: If the system is such a corrupt mess, why not just abolish it? Good question. But in the prevailing spirit of reform, I’ll stick with a simple request that our leaders in Washington should be able to understand: Please stop giving free food to overweight people. Or at least explain to us why that’s so difficult.
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S.E. Seachman's picture
Columns on STR: 7

Steve Seachman is the owner of The Mentor Model, a new business designed to provide an alternative to the 4-year college degree for students seeking professional jobs.
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ReverendDraco's picture

I have read, in more than one place (please don't ask me where, I read so much it's almost impossible to keep track), that only in the US is obesity a sign of poverty. In any other nation, the poor are scrawny, half-starved, walking skeletons - in the US, they "are closer to Aretha Franklin or Oprah during her binge years."

Entitlement-minded Sheeple. . .

NoTax's picture

Most of these programs started in 1964 with LBJ's "War on poverty." What's interesting to note is that 1964 was the last year that there was silver content in U.S. coins. Previous to 1965 coins had a 90% silver content. Fiat money and the welfare state go hand in hand.