America’s Harvest Box: Socialism for Republicans

About a year ago, my friend Jennifer was mocking our current lack of school choice with this analogy to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP):

…the system we have, wherein people are given food stamps to spend at whatever store they please, is FAR better than a system wherein poor people are only able to get food from ONE specified grocery store in their neighborhood — and if that store is subpar and has a crappy selection of food, tough shit for them; if they want to shop at a decent grocery store, their only option is to move to a neighborhood which has one. Yet that dysfunctional hypothetical is EXACTLY how our public education system works now.

The SNAP program is far from ideal, but it’s much better than Jennifer’s laughably zany idea.

Fast forward a year, however, and it turns out that the Trump administration has come up with something much, much dumber.

The Trump administration wants to slash food aid to low-income families and make up the difference with a box of canned goods — a change that Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney described in a Monday briefing as a “Blue Apron-type program.”

“What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

People have come up with a lot of questions about this plan, and I have a few concerns of my own.

[Update: And so does my friend Jennifer, who scooped me on this angle with a post of her own.]

Will it really be cheaper? Sure, the government can buy the food in bulk, but they still have to distribute it to everyone, which is a job that retailers do right now. Can the government actually perform the distribution cheaper than people whose livelihood depends on controlling costs?

What about delivery costs? Under the current system, the cost of getting the food to people’s homes is born by the SNAP benefit recipients themselves, in the sense that they pick the food up themselves. Granted, delivery is probably a nice time-saving benefit for recipients, but there’s no way it’s cheaper for the government.

What about people who move a lot? What about transients and migratory farm workers? What about people who crash with friends? What about the homeless? How will the delivery service work for them?

(Frankly, I wouldn’t expect the deliveries to last. Somebody will decide that since poor people aren’t working, they have plenty of time to pick the food up from a local depot…thus more closely conforming to Jennifer’s original mocking suggestion.)

Even if the system of in-kind food distribution reduces costs, I’m pretty sure it will be far from cost effective — recipients will be getting far less bang for the buck. With food stamps or EBT cards, the recipients get to make their own choices about which foods to buy, which means they can carefully target their needs. That’s just naturally more efficient than letting distant bureaucrats decide what they need.

I hope these food packages will be customized to handle common medical situations, such as low sugar for diabetics, gluten-free for people with celiac disease, no peanuts for those with allergies. On the other hand, the proposed “America’s Harvest Box” program closely resembles the USDA’s current Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which offers only 52 different foods. Even a 7-Eleven stocks over a thousand items.

In any case, there are other reasons besides medical needs for customizing food choices. Secretaries, store clerks, dock workers, nursing mothers, and heart patients all have different food requirements. In addition, many poor people don’t have very versatile kitchens, so they would be better off if they could select foods they can cook easily. And it’s a lot easier to satisfy a picky child with the 30,000 choices from a grocery store than to force them to eat foods they don’t like.

In the long run, with billions of dollars to be spent on food every year, the selection of items to offer is almost certain to be captured by lobbyists for the agriculture industry. They won’t care what foods poor people like, and they won’t even much care what foods are healthy. Instead, food choices will be driven by which agricultural sectors contribute the most money to campaigns or have the most employees in swing states.

The craziest thing about “America’s Harvest Box” program is that it is a giant government-run program proposed by Republicans. Conservatives are supposed to love efficient free markets and hate planned economies, but when Republicans propose programs like this, it shows they don’t really understand why free markets are good. They don’t really believe that individual consumers making choices for themselves will be far better at it than buildings full of government bureaucrats. They only give lip service to “free markets” because it’s what they think their donors want to hear. In practice, gigantic socialist agricultural programs go over just fine with American Republicans. 

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