Don't believe those who say there are two sides to every question. Their hearts may be in the right place, but their ability to count is questionable. To many questions, maybe most, there are several sides.
Take, as Exhibit A, the latest controversy over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. A new USDA study has confirmed what many have long suspected: Despite the word "nutrition" in the program's name, SNAP recipients buy a lot of things that aren't particularly nutritious.
They spend more on sodas than any other item -- about 5% of their grocery-store spending. Some 20% goes for sodas and other sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar (http://tiny.cc/…).
USDA learned this by looking at point-of-sale data from an unnamed grocery-store chain for an entire year -- 2011. POS systems include cash registers and debit/credit-card readers. The chain's POS systems recorded 127 million transactions by an average of 26.5 million households per month, 3.2 million of them SNAP households.
In other words, the study's conclusions are based on a sizable data dump, though far from all purchases by SNAP households at all stores across the country. If USDA had access to POS data for every transaction at every store the percentages spent on particular categories might differ. Still, this is a serious study, the best done so far on the subject, and it raises a question:
Should people be allowed to buy what loosely might be called "junk food" with food stamps?
Perhaps in years past, when American politics were simpler, the study might have elicited two basic answers to that question, one liberal and one conservative. Perhaps. Today, certainly, it's more complicated. Here are six approaches to that yes-no question. There may be others, and some of the six overlap, but they reflect clearly distinguishable points of view.
1. "Budget-hawk" conservatives would say no, don't let people use food stamps for junk food. Their rationale: Uncle Sam shells out $71 billion a year on SNAP benefits, making it the largest farm-bill program. Junk-food purchases undermine the point of the program -- insuring that people who can't afford food are properly nourished. If we're going to spend a lot of taxpayer money on this program, we should at least restrict it to purchases of nutritious items.
2. "Bleeding-heart" liberals would say yes, buying junk food with food stamps is OK. USDA's POS study, they'd point out, concludes there were "no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP" households: Average Americans spend roughly 20% of their grocery budgets on junk foods. The poor should not be punished for being like everyone else. It would be an affront to their dignity. Besides, while the study identified SNAP households, it did not distinguish between what they bought with food stamps and what they spent their own money on. The study specifically does not -- because it cannot -- say 20% of the government-paid SNAP outlays are spent on junk. Ban food-stamp use on junk and recipients would just use their own money for junk purchases.
3. Food-movement liberals, those concerned about obesity and healthy eating, would say no. In their eyes, anything the government can do to discourage the consumption of junk food is good. Obesity costs the country tens of billions in care for heart disease and diabetes. That people use their own money to buy junk food is bad enough; the taxpayer shouldn't subsidize purchases of unhealthy food. Instead, the government should consider increasing SNAP benefits for recipients who use them to buy fruits and vegetables.
4. Libertarian conservatives would say yes. As much as libertarians dislike big government, they dislike the nanny state more. Some libertarians might advocate shrinking or ending SNAP altogether, but if the program is going to continue, the government shouldn't be in the position of telling people what they can and cannot put in their mouths.
5. Anti-welfare conservatives would say no. Welfare programs undermine people's work ethic. Any excuse for limiting welfare benefits and encouraging people to work, or work harder, is a good one.
6. Pragmatists include people from some of the other five persuasions. Whatever else they think, they have questions about the feasibility of disallowing junk-food SNAP purchases. How do you define junk food? Who draws the lines between junk and non-junk? Bureaucrats? Grocery-store clerks? Won't the line-drawing efforts increase the costs of SNAP administration for retailers, the government, or both? Besides, will SNAP recipients diets actually improve or will more of them switch to using their own money to pay for sweets and salty snacks?
As debate over a new farm bill gets underway, Congress will almost certainly take a close look at a variety of possible food-stamp reforms, including a junk-food ban. Were there only two sides to the junk-food question, it would be easier to predict the outcome of this debate. This is one that won't likely break down strictly along party lines.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com