Why not give the poor food?

If giving them food stamps is such a great idea, why not give them the food you say they are unable to purchase, and turning them fat: produce, whole grains, lean meats, etc.

When you think of actually lining people up to hand them a big bag of quinoa and a chicken breast, the stupidity of this program seems fairly self evident (or at least, I hope it does). How happy would you be to get a chicken breast and a bag of quinoa? Not very. Maybe you wanted chicken breasts tonight, but probably you didn't. And you definitely didn't want quinoa. No, you didn't. Stop lying.

Most poor people, if they had access to more money to spend on food, would not buy a lower-calorie, higher fiber diet laden with fruits and vegetables. We know this because almost no one in America eats that kind of diet; it is almost exclusively the province of a certain substrate of the upper middle class. Poor people, given more money to buy food, might upgrade their calorie consumption, but they would not eat like a corporate lawyer from the Upper West Side.

And this is not a moral judgement. Being thin, eating little, having a high fiber diet--the fact that so many people think I am judging the poor reflects their own belief that there is some sort of important moral content to one's weight or calorie consumption. There isn't.

But the only reason to give people food, rather than cash that they might, if they desired, use to buy food, is that they are starving and need food right away. The poor in America are not starving. They do not need food right away. They certainly don't need you telling them that they can have $45 a month, but only if they promise to spend it all on vegetables. They have enough problems without having to contend with well-meaning bureaucrats trying to raise them.

Now, I assume that most people will concede that the poor are not starving, but at the same time say that living on the food budget implied by food stamps is pretty miserable. Indeed it is--though please, don't tax me with the bloody food stamp challenge, because first of all, I've already done it for an article I never sold, and second of all, the average food stamp grant is not what people actually live on; it's a budgetary supplement, not a food budget.

I am sympathetic to this argument. But that doesn't mean I want to increase food stamps, for the same reason that I don't want to actually give people food: many of the people I give the food, or the food stamps to, would rather have the cash to spend on something else. If peoples' incomes are inadequate to the bare minimum needed for decency in modern America, then I am in favor of topping up their incomes. But food stamp programs are stupid at the best of times, and in a population that has clearly reached and surpassed caloric sufficiency, they are ludicrous.

There are two possibilities with food stamps:

1) They are entirely fungible, so that every dollar of food stamps frees up a dollar to be spent on something else. This makes the program good stimulus, but perfectly idiotic social policy.

2) They are not perfectly fungible, so that at least some of the increase has to actually be spent on food. Many people who would rather spend the money on something else are forced to buy food, and many of those people are probably obese.

Food stamps continue not because they're great for the poor, but because they're terrific for the farm lobby. If you want to give stimulus money to the poor, increase the EITC, welfare grants, disability, or unemployment insurance. (I'm on the record as being in favor of the former, against the latter). But for God's sake, can't we all agree that food stamps are a program whose time has gone?