The Obama administration has chosen a Friday afternoon in the summer to put out the news that it is refusing New York City's request to prevent food stamp recipients in the city from using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to pay for soda or other sugary drinks. So if you are poor enough for food stamps – which are subject to only an income test, not an asset test — you have a federal entitlement to spend the vouchers on full-calorie Coca-Cola or Pepsi.
Earlier here, we reported that for the month of May 2011, a record 45,753,078 persons, or about 1 in every 6.8 Americans, participated in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, at a cost of $6.1 billion for the month.
Also earlier, we offered an initial reaction to the idea:
cutting out the subsidy for soda may be a better approach than a tax, and that while the paternalistic nature of it still makes me somewhat uncomfortable, I actually think it makes some sense. If I'm sitting around drinking tap water, why should I be subsidizing via taxes and food stamps some poorer person's decision to buy Coke or Pepsi? I don't object to the idea of a government food stamp safety net to make sure that people don't starve, though I think that without one private charity would rise to the challenge. But it's one thing to provide people with enough food to make sure they are healthy and not starving; it's another thing to feed them enough soda to make them obese, at taxpayer expense. Am I missing something?
One final point that is illuminating: That post with my initial reaction is from October 2010. It's now August 2011. It took the federal food stamp bureaucracy, the secretary of agriculture, and the president ten months to say no to this idea. During those ten months the New York State health commissioner who supported the idea, Richard Daines, passed away. All in all, it's a sorry showing from an administration whose first lady's signature initiative is an anti-obesity campaign. Again, as a general matter, I don't think government should tell anyone what they should or shouldn't eat or drink, and for those reasons I've opposed proposed taxes aimed at sugary beverages. But if food stamps are really a Nutritional Assistance program, it's not really clear to me how Coke and Pepsi fit into that.
I wouldn't be surprised to see this become an issue in the 2012 campaign. The Republicans might be worried about looking mean-spirited by criticizing food stamp recipients. But they could point out that the last two-term Democratic president, Bill Clinton, got elected in part by promising to "end welfare as we know it." And that the person asking for the ban on food-stamp soda, Michael Bloomberg, isn't exactly a hard-right figure but in fact has spent millions of his own money on trying to help people out of poverty. Democrats who want to preserve the safety net may want to think about constructing it in a way that it isn't so vast, fraud-ridden, expensive, or just plain ridiculous that it becomes an inviting political target.