Obama’s Food-Stamp Fizzle

by Nicole Gelinas

After ten months of study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has “rejected Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to bar New York City’s food stamp users from buying soda and other sugary drinks with their benefits,” the Times reports

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal was a sound one — an idea that conservatives as well as liberals should have embraced, as I wrote back in June.

Liberals should have agreed that federal taxpayers have no business encouraging poor mothers to “feed” their kids liquid sugar. (Nothing wrong with soda — but it’s not a product that should fall under a “nutritional assistance” subsidy.) 

Conservatives should have appreciated the fact that as food-stamp use soars — up 50 percent in New York from three years ago — it’s important to make sure that every dollar taken from stretched taxpayers goes toward food. A dollar that a mother spends on soda is a dollar that she doesn’t spend on milk or chicken.

Conservatives should also have encouraged the kind of bottom-up local experimentation to cut costs and improve results that Bloomberg was suggesting. The mayor had proposed a two-year experiment, to see if cutting government subsidization of soda trimmed obesity. If it hadn’t worked after two years, the USDA could have cancelled it.

Few politicians stuck up for the mayor’s proposal, though. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an arm of which gets money from the soda lobby, said the plan would stigmatize the poor.

The USDA’s reason for its rejection shows how it, too, was cowed. Bureaucrats said that the proposal was “too large and complex.” That’s a paraphrase straight from the industry, which said, as the Times put it a few months back, that treating soda differently from other foods “would create a logistical bottleneck at checkout counters.”

Hogwash. Supermarkets and other food stores have long sold both “food-stamp eligible” goods and goods not covered by food stamps (everything from soap to cat food). When I worked at a supermarket in the early 1990s, it took the click of one button to subtotal the two categories separately. Retail technology has only improved since then.

At any rate, stores can always opt out of the food-stamp program if they find its requirements too onerous. This program isn’t mandatory, but voluntary, for retailers.

With the government borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar it spends, not one of those dollars should go toward a sweet drink in the name of nutrition. Water is free. Congress’s new deficit-reduction super-committee could start here. 

Also . . . what will Michelle Obama say? 

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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