Protect them from themselves

A number of people in my commenters have come out in favor of food stamps not as a political expediency, but as a first best policy option because they force people to spend money on food that might otherwise have gone somewhere else. This comes in two varieties:

1) If I'm giving you my money, I damn well get to determine how you spend it

2) Poor people might make bad decisions with cash, so better force them to use it on food.

Both of these arguments are somewhat undone by the fact that food stamp recipients can always monetize their grants to some extent, by buying food and then exchanging it for cash. It's just that the process is extremely inefficient, and the sale will net much less than the full value of the food stamps.

More broadly, do I get to attach strings to the money you get from the government? If you have a mortgage, and deduct the mortgage interest, thus getting a hefty government benefit paid by those of us who are not homeowners, does this entitle me to go over to your house and make sure that you're not spending the money on something I disapprove of?

As to the second argument, I recognize an obligation to ensure that those who are genuinely incapable of earning a minimally decent living for themselves have the ready needed to secure the basics. I do not recognize an obligation on my part to ensure that they actually do so. Nor do I think that I am the best judge of what people need.

If people are genuinely so screwed up that when given enough money to buy what they need, they fail to purchase enough food to sustain life, then what they need is not food stamps, but 24 hour supervision. If people will buy alchohol or some other unnecessary instead of feeding their children, then they are probably neglecting their children in other ways requiring a stronger intervention than an EBT card. One could argue that right now, incomes are not high enough to purchase basic necessities (and indeed, I think the EITC should be increased, as I've said numerous times.) But that still doesn't make the case for food stamps for me; if the poor take money out of their food budgets to buy something else, it is presumably because they think they need that something even more than they need their next meal. Who am I to second guess them?

This has nothing to do with the appropriate level of spending on the poor, or even the structure. But assuming a basic basket of cash that we are prepared to spend on improving peoples' lives, it seems clear to me that none of that cash should be handed out in the form of food stamps.