On Friday, the speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, William O’Brien, suggested the state should pass a law to stop people on welfare from spending their benefits on tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets. Sitting next to him at the press conference was a woman who lost her job at a convenience store after refusing to sell a pack of cigarettes to a man paying with an electronic benefit transfer card.
“Jackie Whiton had the courage to stand up as an employee of a store to say ‘Enough,’” O’Brien said, according to the Nashua Telegraph. “We are not going to let her courage go unanswered.”
Aside from the slight oddity of a top state official congratulating someone for refusing to do her job, the story isn’t unusual. Lots of states are trying to make this sort of move, and my Facebook news feed frequently brings me forwarded demands to stop food stamp recipients from buying soda or to drug test anyone getting government benefits.
Some of the arguments clearly stem from the bipolar right-wing mindset that says the economy is terrible, and anyone who’s unemployed needs to go out and find a job. Still, they’re emotionally compelling. Whenever I’m talking with someone for this blog about how they’re feeding their kids with food stamps, and then I see them pull out a cigarette, I feel a swell of disapproval. Usually, though, I find my perspective switches quickly, especially if I happen to call to mind the time I wouldn’t let my husband quit smoking.
We were living in California at the time, but we were right about to move back to the East Coast. I told him no way was he quitting until we were moved in back east. Of course I wanted him to stop smoking. I just couldn’t imagine being caged in for a whole road trip with the edginess and general bad attitude that comes with nicotine withdrawal.
Many of the people I talk to for this blog—at least the ones who get food stamps or housing subsidies or some kind of other assistance—are facing much bigger stressors than a three-day car ride. Take Nicole, who’s raising three kids with a mentally ill boyfriend on a budget so tight that she has to worry about how to pay for both soap and shampoo. She pays for basic cable because she doesn’t want to be left out of conversations about what’s going on in the news. Should I judge her because I don’t have cable?
Or, take “Red Rooster.” After 20 years driving a truck, he lost his job when the economy tanked, and he’s got heart problems that keep him out of work. He gets government benefits. And he drinks quite a bit of beer, though his doctor says he shouldn’t. Would it help anything to kick him off welfare?
These aren’t new questions. Back in the 1930s, George Orwell described upper-class, health-minded experts telling poor people that they ought to eat better in language that’s remarkably close to what we hear from their modern counterparts. And his response is still just as good as it was then:
“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.”
Orwell writes about the cheap, satisfying food of the poor—tea and chips and margarine on white bread—but he couldn’t have envisioned the farm subsidies that make corn- and soy-based, ubiquitously advertised, ultraprocessed snacks the cheapest thing you can buy. Reversing backwards policies that affect the entire food stream would, of course, do far more to keep people healthy than micromanaging how poor people can use their benefits.
When it comes to things like cigarettes and lottery tickets, it’s probably a good idea to remember that people who get cash benefits that could buy those things are likely to be under particular stress. Back before Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, 96 percent of poor families with kids in New Hampshire received cash benefits. In 2009, it was 39 percent. Nationally, the percentage fell from 75 to 28 percent. The money generally comes with work requirements and lifetime limits on collecting, and it’s only available to people who can prove they’re in intensely difficult straits to start with.
Even people just getting food stamps—a significantly larger group—are, almost by definition, in a state of acute or prolonged crisis. They’ve lost a job and run out of savings, or they’re working for $10 an hour with two kids at home, or they were diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t keep doing their job.
Most of us have worse excuses than that for our drinking and smoking and junk food habits. Certainly that’s true of me, and, as it happens, I’m a welfare recipient too. In at least one recent year, my family made little enough money that we got an earned income tax credit—free money from the government. After we bought a house two years ago, we also got an $8,000 first-time homebuyers credit. That’s $2,000 more than the average participant in the state’s cash benefits program gets in a year, and four times as much as the average food stamp recipient gets. But, since the money went straight to our bank account, not into a distinctive card, I don’t get dirty looks when I pick up a 12-pack of microbrew at the supermarket.
Our societal tolerance for people getting government money rises even more when it comes to the upper end of the economy. I doubt executives at G.E., a company that managed to pay no federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010, would feel much shame about buying steak for the company barbecue.
In the end, whether we’re empathetic to a smoker who gets food stamps or a profitable corporation that doesn’t pay taxes is probably not all that important. Government policies are supposed to be about achieving desirable social outcomes, like healthy kids with halfway stable homes. Saying that’s something we can shoot for only once parents agree to live on oranges and wheat bread—in the face of the daily stresses caused by an economic system where they can’t hope to find a decent job—doesn’t make for a particularly effective policy.