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How People (Including Gwyneth Paltrow) Get Food Stamps Wrong

Is the point of food stamps survival, or living large off other people’s hard work?


Food stamps have been in the news a lot lately.

Before Gwyneth Paltrow decided to use the supposed equivalent of her food stamp allotment to buy guacamole ingredients, we heard a mother who had formerly taken Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits lament in the Washington Post that a Missouri proposal to limit what foods these benefits can purchase (such as steak) is tantamount to treating the poor like “criminals.”

But rather than painting a picture of what it’s like to live on a meager food budget, both Gwynnie (in all her GOOP-Y wisdom) and the Post author have demonstrated that they simply do not understand what food stamps are intended by the government for in the first place: to help ensure citizens’ survival.

Surviving vs. Thriving

The distinction that must be made here is this: Government programs, and especially government assistance programs, are meant to help individuals survive, not thrive. Thriving, or “living the good life” is best left up to individual means (ability and income), preferences (tastes), and affiliations (religious organizations, family ties, etc.). As a government-funded program, food stamps are not meant to ensure the same level of quality-of-life for the poor that the non-poor may or may not enjoy. After all, a picture of “the good life” does not look the same between one man and the next. Food stamps are therefore primarily intended for survival, and most importantly, are meant to be both temporary and supplemental.

Government programs, and especially government assistance programs, are meant to help individuals survive, not thrive.

The government does have a reasonable interest in helping its citizens survive. After all, people can’t dream of thriving when they’re unable to put food on their tables. However, since one does not need a steak to survive when other, cheaper proteins may provide similar survival benefit, the government has no obligation to provide a porterhouse to someone on food stamps. Lest a steak be the only protein available for someone to purchase (and therefore be necessary for survival) the government has no obligation to provide someone with the means to obtain it. As it happens, there are typically cheaper proteins available which provide similar survival benefits, as anyone who has tried to feed a family on a budget can attest to.

But why is it important that the government butt out of the business of “thriving?”

As we are all homo sapiens, surviving looks pretty much the same for all of us (unless you’re Gwyneth Paltrow, who evidently needs upwards of a half-dozen limes a week to get by). But thriving? That’s entirely a different story. For one man, the ability to indulge in a porterhouse and a bottle of Bordeaux on occasion may allow him to realize his vision of “the good life.” Another may not care as much for steak and wine as the former, and instead feel most content when he is able to afford a family vacation once a year. Therefore, since “living the good life” does not look the same for everyone, the government has no business in attempting to provide it for citizens. Beyond creating the conditions under which enterprising individuals may thrive (should they pursue the means to do so), the government has little to no business in attempting to provide individuals the means for “living the good life.”

Food Stamps Don’t Belong to Poor People

And, lest we forget, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

The old adage is harsh, and I realize it’s not even remotely fair to refer to every poor person on SNAP benefits as a “beggar.” But as with most old sayings, there is a ring of truth to it. Whatever people do with their own income is their business, and they may use it to help themselves or their families and friends thrive; they are at liberty to dispose of the fruits of their labor as they wish (provided that it isn’t in an illegal fashion), regardless of whether they are also on food stamps. But when surviving is at stake and the government is involved, its only obligation is to ensure survival. In providing food stamps for basic survival goods, the government fulfills this role.

Finally, we should ask ourselves: Do we want the government to be in charge of deciding what “thriving” looks like for each of us?

I hope to God the answer is a resounding “no.” Therefore, reading an implicit “punishment” into restricting what food stamps are able to purchase, or suggesting that $29 spent on guacamole ingredients is what food stamps are meant for, represents an entitled attitude which fundamentally misunderstands what SNAP benefits and other government assistance programs were intended for in the first place: surviving, not thriving.