Here comes a really terrible public policy idea. The Trump administration wants to deliver nonperishable food directly to America’s poor.
Under a plan just outlined by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, the federal government would design, prepare, package, and deliver boxed food to 38 million food stamp recipients. Their monthly stamp allotment would fall by half.
The idea bears an alluring name: “USDA America’s Harvest Box.” Mulvaney called it “a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” referring to the private (and financially struggling) company that delivers pre-packaged ingredients to consumers for cooking meals at home.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—the official name for food stamps—has worked rather well for decades. The government collects taxes and distributes food stamps to lower-income people. Recipients spend stamps as they would money, in the same stores where their neighbors shop. They choose foods they desire, judge for themselves the quality of those foods, and change brands or stores if they wish. A grocery store hands the stamps back to the government, getting cash in return. SNAP harnesses private, well-functioning markets to fulfill the desires and interests of buyers and sellers.
In contrast, consider another program for the poor—public housing. Here, the government micromanages the show, deciding what sort of housing to build, hiring the contractors, and managing the facilities. The frequent result is sterile, crime-ridden communities that isolate, rather than elevate, the poor. Perhaps most infamously, St. Louis’s massive Pruitt-Igoe project was a veritable war zone, demolished 20-some years after construction.
The Trump administration’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea would apply the Pruitt-Igoe model to nutrition. The government—not consumers—would decide what is and is not nutritious and tasty. While the rest of us buy what we want, the poor would consume items selected for them by the deputy assistant secretary for lunch.
The government—not private entrepreneurs—would decide how to source food and other inputs, how to manage logistics, and how to negotiate with vendors, further isolating the program from the people who actually have to eat the stuff. Bland, one-size-fits-all ingredient lists would forcibly supplant the wonderful ethnic and regional mosaic of American cuisine. Somehow, all of this is supposed to save money.
The proposal includes a “buy American” provision, no doubt inspired by the president’s belief that America can be made great again through protectionism. Economists have long understood that protectionism raises costs for consumers more than it pads producers’ profits. Over the long run, protected and coddled industries such as textiles, steel, autos, and agriculture do not outperform other industries. Too often, the communities dominated by such firms such as steel towns in the Rust Belt or textile towns in the South tend to stagnate.
Michelle Obama’s school lunch directives aroused intense opposition from dissatisfied students coast-to-coast. But a much closer parallel is the federal government’s role in distributing food on Native American reservations.
Beginning with forced relocations in the mid-19th century, the federal government aimed to provide Native Americans living on reservations with adequate nutrition, but at low cost. The result was a diet heavy in canned foods, flour, sugar, and lard in place of traditional foods. Parallel programs persist even today, likely contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemics ravaging these areas.
This program echoes the much maligned and nutritionally dubious “government cheese” distribution programs of earlier decades. SNAP has long been one of the better-functioning federal programs. This is a good place to leave well enough alone.