Bogus Food Stamp Challenge

You can spend less on food than the poorest food stamp recipients and still enjoy a healthy, low-fat diet rich in vitamins and fiber.

That’s what a Quaker vegetarian found when he decided to limit his weekly spending on food to $25. That’s less than the $32 per person in food stamps that the poorest food stamp recipients receive. The Quaker was able to live well even though he ate only organic food (non-organic food costs 30 to 50 percent less than organic food).

Right now, liberal Congressmen are participating in the “Food Stamp Challenge,” in which they limit their spending on food to the $21 per week that some food stamp recipients receive in food stamps (that $21 is less than what the poorest food stamp recipients tend to receive). It’s an attempt to drum up support for increased federal spending on food stamps and welfare.

To make this sum of money ($21) look too small to live on, and thus justify a big increase in federal spending on food stamps, they are wasting their money on things like fatty ground beef. That creates the false impression that poor people can’t afford healthy food on a food stamps budget.

But I have lived not only on less than the poorest food stamp recipients receive ($32) but on less than the $21 that participants in the bogus food stamp challenge can spend.

In 1994-95, I typically spent less than $15 a week in food, while working as a law clerk (my first job after law school). My diet was healthy and low in fat, consisting mostly of tuna (I purchased around 500 6-ounce cans of tuna on sale at 20 cents each), baked potatoes, and milk, supplemented by orange juice (from concentrate) and assorted fruits and vegetables that were on sale (sweet potatoes, bananas, carrots, onions, etc.).

The baked potatoes I ate were cheaper, healthier, and more nutritious (a baked potato gives you more than 30 percent of your daily Vitamin C needs) than the frozen french fries that my wife sees recipients of food stamps buying at local grocery stores.

While I was spending less than $15 a week on food, I also saved money by living with three other people in the top unit of a duplex. By contrast, nearly half of all American households below the poverty line own their own home, most frequently a three-bedroom home. (Today, I own a two-bedroom home, which I share with my wife and baby daughter).

Government measures of whether a household is below the poverty line are deceptive, because they do not take into account non-cash welfare benefits that the household receives, no matter how generous. Many “poor” people aren’t really poor at all. But they qualify for government assistance under strange and counterintuitive definitions of poverty.

Americans below the poverty line typically possess many of the same appliances as the rich, such as color TVs, VCRs, and stereos. They are far more likely to possess such appliances than low-income people in Europe (indeed, they are somewhat more likely to possess them than European middle-class people).