Soda ban part of bigger issueNew York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has bestirred a dustup over what one might think is a minor yet symbolic policy change. He wants to ban people on food stamps (a.k.a. the federal SNAP program) from using them to buy sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City.
By: Bonnie Erbe, The Dickinson Press
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has bestirred a dustup over what one might think is a minor yet symbolic policy change. He wants to ban people on food stamps (a.k.a. the federal SNAP program) from using them to buy sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City.
The mayor’s goal is clear: government-funded programs should not underwrite people’s self-destructive eating habits. It doesn’t mean people on food stamps can’t buy sugar-based sodas and drinks. It just means they cannot use food stamps to do so.
Yet the move has energized a brigade of food industry lobbyists and advocates for poor Americans claiming the mayor’s policy change is tantamount to denying a constitutional right (to government-funded bad behavior?) or something thereunto approximating. According to the New York Times, “Food and beverage lobbyists see the mayor’s plan as a well-intentioned but misguided and paternalistic effort. They say it would create a logistical bottleneck at checkout counters and stigmatize poor people using food stamps. They also fear that restrictions on soft drinks would set a precedent for the government to distinguish between good and bad foods and to ban the use of food stamps for other products — an issue sure to come up next year in the Congressional debate on a new farm bill.”
Buying sugar-sweetened sodas and pop drinks is not that big a deal, as far as I’m concerned. That, despite the mayor’s claim that those drinks are the single largest contributor to the obesity epidemic. To me the argument develops in the chasm between people who would answer the following question with a yes or a no: Do Americans have a right (whether constitutional or not) to money from the government to engage in self-destructive behavior? Further, when they engage in such behavior, is it the duty of the taxpayers to subsidize the huge medical costs they bring on themselves?
As a proponent of the war on poverty, I believe the nation’s poor are entitled to a wide array of taxpayer-funded benefits that help them pull themselves out of poverty: Headstart, a quality public school education and government-supported colleges and graduate schools program, is foremost among those benefits. But between 1963 (when Congress and President Johnson launched the Great Society anti-poverty programs) and 2004, the conservative Heritage Foundation reports the federal government spent $11 trillion fighting poverty. And the poverty rate is now rising perilously close to what it was when the Great Society programs began. That, even though in the 1970s, it had dropped to about half was it was in the early 1960s.
What has happened in between? Several major events have occurred, of course, the most recent being the Great Recession from which we are just now recovering. But prior to that, we had a huge expansion in the percentage of births to unwed mothers. Never-married moms and their children are the most likely of all demographic groups to be living in poverty.
Our public school system also deteriorated greatly in the five decades between the Great Society programs’ launch and now. We saw immigration patterns change so that a huge increase in impoverished persons entered the U.S. legally and illegally, filling more slots in those public schools.
And, sadly, we saw a change in the ethic of the American poor from believing that it was up to each person or family to pull themselves out of poverty, to a sense of entitlement as if the government owed each family food, housing and free quality schooling.
I do not blame the poor for this change in ethic. I blame nonprofit groups that, at least in part, have found they can make a living lobbying Congress and the public for more benefits for poor people. At first this was a great idea. Now it has snowballed into a non-stop battle over subsidies for bad behavior.
So is Mayor Bloomberg’s policy change demonic and hard-hearted? Or are people owed government subsidies for bad behavior? I think the answer is clear.
Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.