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Ending Paternalism in Food Aid: The Case for Cash Benefits

(Image via Brookings)

Few public assistance programs in the United States have attracted as much political attention as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). These programs, more commonly known as “food stamps,” provide nutrition assistance to millions of low-income Americans. In 2021, SNAP provided aid to over 41 million people, while over 6 million pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children received benefits through WIC. Perhaps due to the large number of recipients and the racialized perception of recipients, SNAP and WIC have faced significant stigmatization from policymakers. This attitude towards SNAP is best exemplified by former President Ronald Reagan, who characterized recipients as taking advantage of the public assistance to purchase luxury goods. This position on SNAP and WIC recipients has had real consequences on how these programs are designed, leading to onerous restrictions that make it difficult for recipients to use their benefits effectively. This “welfare paternalism,” which attempts to dictate what choices recipients can make about how to use their benefits, is ineffective and demeaning. The goal of nutrition assistance programs should not be to restrict, but instead to expand the choices available to participants. This goal would be best served by replacing the SNAP and WIC programs with a cash benefit.

Both SNAP and WIC carry several restrictions on their use that limit the options available to recipients. The major restriction on SNAP is that benefits cannot be used to purchase foods that are hot at the point of sale. The implication of this rule is that while SNAP recipients are allowed to purchase a cold chicken to prepare at home, they are forbidden from purchasing a rotisserie chicken from the same store. Notwithstanding the purpose of the rule, its principal outcome appears to be unduly burdening SNAP recipients by preventing them from purchasing food in a more convenient form. 

Determining which foods are eligible for WIC is even more complicated. Unlike SNAP, WIC can only be spent on foods that have been approved by the program, creating a dizzying array of limitations for WIC recipients to juggle. For example, although Rhode Island WIC recipients are permitted to use benefits to purchase regular yogurt, they are forbidden to use the benefit to purchase organic or Greek yogurt. This is yet another example of irrational WIC rules, which force pregnant individuals and new mothers to determine whether their purchase of yogurt or fruit will comply with seemingly arbitrary bureaucratic decisions. In addition, SNAP and WIC are both distributed through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that can only be used at participating locations. This setup forces recipients to seek out participating locations that will accept their EBT card, further burdening the food shopping process and contributing to the stigmatization of receiving benefits. These restrictions do nothing to improve the lives of program recipients and only make it more difficult for them to access food.

Replacing SNAP and WIC with a cash benefit of equal value would address all of these problems. Cash can be spent anywhere and on anything, which would free SNAP and WIC recipients from having to worry about whether or not their purchases will be permitted under program rules. In addition, those with access to food through channels other than SNAP or WIC, such as through food banks or family members, are currently forced to spend their benefit on food. In contrast, a cash benefit would give these people the option to purchase other necessities, such as diapers or rent, depending on their individual circumstances. Critics of this reform argue that recipients cannot be trusted to spend their benefit responsibly and will instead squander it, but these claims are unfounded. Multiple studies have shown that cash transfers actually result in either no change or a decrease in spending on “temptation goods” such as alcohol and tobacco, while another study found that cash assistance is more likely to be spent on education, health, and basic needs than temptation goods. There is no reason to suspect that SNAP and WIC recipients should be forced to purchase pre-approved goods.

Despite significant evidence to the contrary, the misconception that low-income recipients of nutrition assistance are incapable of effectively choosing how to spend their benefits persists. This welfare paternalism needlessly complicates the lives of program recipients, who are forced to navigate labyrinthine restrictions on what they are allowed to purchase. Replacing SNAP and WIC with a cash benefit would abolish this draconian practice, and it would go a long way toward turning SNAP and WIC from programs that restrict recipients’ choices into programs that expand them.