Conservatives believe in individual freedom, free enterprise, and limited government. This is why conservatives often bridle against the government restricting individual choice—even when it comes to the use of public benefits. After all, being free to make decisions for yourself and your family is fundamental to conservative thought.
So, why should policymakers consider placing restrictions on what food items recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can purchase?
One reason rests on SNAP’s purpose, which is to improve nutrition among families with limited resources. Although early forms of the Food Stamp Program (the predecessor of SNAP) focused on transferring excess commodities to hungry families, the program’s emphasis shifted to improving nutrition when it became a national program in the 1970s. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 makes this purpose clear, stating “a food stamp program is herein authorized which will permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation.” In 2008, Congress renamed the program to SNAP to include the word “nutrition” specifically in its title, further codifying nutrition as its main goal.
Taxpayers should expect government to be good stewards of public dollars, including ensuring that safety net programs fulfill their goals. Yet, SNAP fails to reach its nutrition goals, with the consequences being poor health among low-income people that costs taxpayers billions more through Medicaid and Medicare to cover health care costs.
Like many Americans, SNAP recipients spend a large share of their food budgets on non-nutritious foods, such as sugary beverages and processed foods. But unlike other Americans, SNAP recipients participate in a program designed specifically to improve their nutrition. Yet, research shows that SNAP participants fare worse than non-recipients on diet quality and many diet-related health outcomes. Although it is unclear whether SNAP causes these poor health outcomes or simply correlates with them, it undoubtedly sustains unhealthy habits.
Given that the US is facing serious problems related to obesity and diet-related disease, programs that support nutrition and healthy living should be at the fore of national attention. But by allowing SNAP participants to purchase the foods and beverages driving these health issues, SNAP is ultimately contributing to the problem.
Other government programs do not so obviously contradict their stated purpose. For example, Congress does not allow educational aid to fund non-educational activities. And Congress does not allow participants to use housing assistance for unsafe housing. This raises questions about why Congress allows federal funds dedicated to improving nutrition to purchase products directly linked to poor nutrition.
A common response from skeptics on both sides of the political aisle is that the government should not micromanage the choices of Americans. However, when taxpayers fund a program, they should expect the funds to support the program’s stated purpose. Already, SNAP restricts the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol because those purchases would be outside the goals of the program. It is consistent to restrict clearly non-nutritious foods from SNAP.
Skeptics also compare SNAP to other government policies without use restrictions, such as tax credits. But SNAP is an in-kind benefit, meaning that participants can only spend it on food. SNAP is also “supplemental,” meaning recipients are free to use their own money for any food or beverage they want, although research suggests recipients use SNAP differently than other income sources. Tax credits involve people paying the government less of their own money that they can then use freely. Alternatively, when Congress authorizes taxpayer dollars for a specific purpose – such as improving nutrition through SNAP – it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the program utilizes funds for its stated purpose. This often necessitates “micromanaging” the use of the benefits.
In many safety net programs, the government already restricts how participants can use benefits. Parents who receive federal childcare assistance can purchase only childcare that meets health and safety requirements. Recipients of federal housing assistance are “free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program.” Even Medicaid recipients cannot use their insurance for any provider, only those approved by the state according to federal regulations. While this level of government control might make conservatives uncomfortable, it is essential to ensure the proper use of taxpayer dollars and to ensure government programs do not harm participants.
The reasons to support for SNAP restrictions are straightforward. Congress’s stated goal for SNAP is to improve nutrition. Therefore, restricting participant use of benefits to nutritious foods and beverages is consistent with the goal of the program. Americans should indeed be free to use their money as they see fit. But taxpayer dollars earmarked for a specific purpose should always aim to fulfill that purpose—even if it requires “restricting” its use.