Maybe We Let People Buy What They Like

The debate about what people should or shouldn’t be able to purchase using food stamps or other assistance programs has been raging for decades. Ronald Reagan famously used the “Welfare Queen” example (since debunked) to say that public safety net programs were being abused and should therefore be eliminated. Less drastically, politicians have tried to chip away at such programs by restricting what such funds can and can’t be used for.

Few items have generated such controversy as soda and soft drinks. A recent op-ed labeled the use of federal and state funds on such drinks a “subsidy” for the soda industry, propping up those companies on the backs of low-income people who then develop health issues because they drink them.

It’s not a bad argument, but it overlooks or ignores a few realities about the working poor.

First, caffeine and sugar are great stimulants, providing a much-needed energy boost that can be super-helpful as low-cost stimulants. If you’re working one or more part-time jobs you might need a little something to keep you going between shifts because you might not be getting a decent night’s sleep all the time. And even if you are, you might be on your feet 14 hours a day and just need some sugar-induced assistance.

Second, soda and other sugary treats might be the one luxury a family affords itself. They may not be able to afford going out for ice cream every Saturday night, but buying a 2-liter of Coke could be something everyone looks forward to.

Most of all, the argument that somehow soda, candy or other foods with high-calorie counts and low nutritional value shouldn’t be available to those on food assistance and similar programs skips right past the part where it’s questionable as to whether they should be available to anyone at any income level.

Consider that the op-ed mentions how those who consume too much soda run the risk of winding up with any of a variety of health issues that they then seek medical treatment for. The taxpayer is then being charged twice, once to subsidize the purchase and then, through Medicaid or other programs, for the treatment of problems resulting from the purchase.

Strike that. It’s actually three times the taxpayer is on the hook. They also provided subsidies to the farmer who grew the corn that was turned into sugar to make the drinks.

At the heart of that argument is that the soda and other treats are bad for you. In order to accept the conclusion that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for someone to buy soda that’s then going to give someone diabetes that will have to be treated through taxpayer-funded health coverage, logically you have to start at the premise that soda is bad for you.

The question then becomes not “Why are people allowed to buy it using tax-funded assistance programs?” but “Why are companies allowed to produce it using tax-funded assistance programs?” Take that even further and you can ask “Why are taxpayers asked to foot the bill for medical treatment and not the company that made the product that caused the problem?”

In other words, what if we stopped talking about the responsibility of the individual on welfare and started talking about the company on the receiving end of corporate welfare?

Suddenly this is a very different policy issue, one that has implications for a variety of food and other industries. And the likely reason those aren’t the questions being asked or perspectives being taken is the same one for most instances of political disconnectedness: Money.

For the last two years there have been conversations in the media about why every story about something Pres. Trump does that’s offensive to non-whites almost solely includes interviews and commentary from whites. That’s broadened into conversations about newsroom inclusiveness on other topics including technology and more.

Similar conversations need to happen regarding financial coverage. Not everything can just include some quotes from financial experts and gurus. Even the most well-meaning economist is still likely to address issues from the perspective of the well-off. As a recent Vice post pointed out, most money advice offered by such experts is useless because it requires the kind of long-term thinking you just can’t do when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

The same philosophy holds true for when finance moves from being personal into the realm of public policy.

The perspective of the press can be broadened by bringing in more people who are able to speak from experience about the kinds of issues faced by the working poor, those who are struggling to maintain their increasingly-tenuous position in the middle class and others.

That kind of perspective might have pointed out some of the issues raised above as well as additional ones that are outside my experience. It’s one that would be useful to have not just in media, of course, but also within the halls of power where such topics are discussed and decided, the ramifications of which are felt not by them but by those without much, if any, power themselves.

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