Fungible Follies

Steak and Lobster

Image by @MARIA@ via Flickr

It appeared to be an “aha” moment, confirmation that the welfare system is corrupt and out of control.  Somebody bought steak and lobster with food stamps.  Snopes confirms that it’s true.  It happened in Michigan last February.

The good news is that the authorities arrested the man who now faces up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.  The bad news is that the arrest was not for using charity money for extravagances, but for trying to turn a profit on food stamp money.  He sold the stuff for 50 cents on the dollar, thus providing a new reason for Snopes readers to learn the definition of “fungible”.

But the question remains, why was he able to buy such things with food stamps?


Image via Wikipedia

The FDA’s food stamp program is now called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  I looked it up.  There are many rules and restrictions for eligibility but, notably, the quality of one’s house and car are not among them.  The eligibility requirements are HERE.  Thus there is the occasional story of someone who lives in a nice house going to the store in a nice car and buying with food stamps.  As for what one can buy with SNAP food stamps, there are few restrictions.  An FDA web site lists these:

Households CANNOT use SNAP benefits to buy:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco;
  • Any nonfood items, such as:
  •   — pet foods;
  •   — soaps, paper products; and
  •   — household supplies.
  • Vitamins and medicines.
  • Food that will be eaten in the store.
  • Hot foods.

The FDA site also says:

Soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items

Seafood, steak, and bakery cakes are also food items and are therefore eligible items

Then there was this:

Several times in the history of SNAP, Congress had considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits. However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.

The FDA bureaucracy has wrestled with the concept of exclusions.  The executive summary of a paper on the issues involved in restrictions in the SNAP program are instructive and can be found at this LINK.

Bread Line

Bread Line, by TRiver via Flickr

This is not a simple topic, but with some 40 million people on the food stamp program and the federal budget busted (or it would be if we had one), I suggest that more restrictions are needed.  How about no steak and no lobsters?  Hey, it’s a start.  I wonder if there could also be restrictions placed on “gourmet foods”?

In my opinion, just a little welfare stigma might actually be good for the public ethos if someone can figure out how to work it in without too much outrage.  My heart goes out to the long-term-unemployed, but human nature also ensures that abuse will always attend a welfare system.  The steak and lobster incident shows that.

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  — Robert Browning  (NOT Robert Burns – erratum courtesy of Henry Morgan)

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to Fungible Follies

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    It is EASY to do as you suggest, Jim

    List all the food that is ALLOWED to be bought with food stamps ONLY. Don’t try to exclude things, just authorize the nutritional things, like oatmeal but nor “sugar pops”, etc. Then the food lobby will be all over the bureaucracy, right. MY food is nutrious even though it only has sugar and salt in it!!!

    You and I could tour a grocery store and in one day have a pretty good list. Publish it and make it happen. And if we make a mistake and exclude something that IS nutrious to a “common man” then be flexible enough to add it to the list. Same if we make a mistake and put junk food of some sort on there. Flexibility to change the least and SOMEONE be held accountable for the damn list, a real person who can be fired if he or she does it wrong and without flexibility.



    • Rawhead says:

      Steak is nutritious… REALLY nutritious. So is lobster!
      There’s always going to be someone squawking no matter what you do. Ideally, the food stamps would only buy basic, nutritional ingredients in generic brands only. That will have the brand-name manufacturers complaining in no time. Nobody can really agree on what’s ‘nutritious’ either. So we can’t define “nutritious” and we can’t define “gourmet foods” so short of paying a public servant to micromanage the grocery budgets of welfare recipients, the current system is about the best we have.

      I don’t see why it’s still possible to sell food stamps though, isn’t that all on a card now? Don’t they ask for ID?

      However, certain resources are NOT counted, such as a home and lot, the resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the resources of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), and most retirement (pension) plans.

      Hey! I wonder if Jim and Anson qualify!?


  2. Rawhead says:

    States issue SNAP benefits through local State or county offices to households that are eligible to receive them. Traditionally, they issued paper food stamps, but increasingly, States issue the benefits through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). The local office gives the household a plastic electronic card. The household pays for its groceries at authorized food stores (almost all food stores are authorized) by using the card at the checkout counter. It works like the bank debit card that other people use to pay for their groceries in increasing numbers of stores. The cost of the groceries bought is deducted from the household’s account automatically. A major advantage of this method is that the use of food coupons is not conspicuous. Most other people in line will not notice that the person checking out is paying with food coupons. We have found that SNAP households like this feature, because it reduces the stigma many people feel in using SNAP benefits.

    A second advantage is that the household no longer needs to go anywhere to pick up benefits each month. Benefits are automatically loaded into the household’s account each month on the designated date. We have found that households especially enjoy this feature.

    What!? Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to be on the public dole! Why not have a red light and siren go off at the register instead when someone buys with food stamps? Geez.


  3. sekanblogger says:

    Yeah, Jim has a great point here. But….man, the rules for this stuff could get complicated fast.
    There are always be those gaming the system. I know we’re talking government here, but if it could be kept simple somehow, it would help. Maybe start with one simple rule: limit meat by price per pound, not type of meat.
    I am not far from qualifying for SNAP, even though I work 60 hours a week. If I see more expensive cuts marked down for quick sale, it would be a better deal for me, and the same could be said of SNAP recipients.
    Just throwing out an idea.


  4. sandiemorgan says:

    Jim, sorry, but your quote is from Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto.” noy Robert Burns.
    Henry Morgan


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Well bless you, Henry. I have cited Burns for this more than once and you are the first to catch my error. (Ancient brain cells can short and fuse – my only excuse.) Thank you.

      🙂 Jim


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