SNAP Bill Falls Flat

by | Jan 30, 2017

Sean AlexanderBad for families and businesses

By Sean Alexander Special to the Democrat-Gazette

 

The Arkansas legislative process follows a simple rule: Effective policy is better than ineffective innovation. Government time and money must be used effectively. Yet some bills filed during the 2017 legislative session seem to have forgotten this rule.

One such bill is HB1035. By limiting the foods purchasable by beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) to only those with “sufficient nutritional value,” Rep. Mary Bentley’s goal is to ensure all Arkansans have access to food that does not harm their long-term health. In a state with some of the highest rates of hunger, poverty, and obesity in the nation, this bill represents a noble aim.

But there is a problem with HB1035. If Representative Bentley’s intent is to reduce the number of simultaneously obese and food-insecure Arkansans, this proposal will fail to deliver.

The problem with HB1035 is that it wrongly assumes all people buy food for the same reasons. When you and I go to the store, we buy particular types of food because it tastes good. Some of the time, our mental math tells us to buy that food which balances health and taste. Other times, we treat ourselves with a Snickers bar.

But for low-income Arkansans, the fact that healthy food is often unaffordable makes the grocery-shopping process a different activity altogether. In 2015, a survey by Feeding America found that while 85 percent of low-income parents believe eating healthy is important, 79 percent report having to use unhealthy food to afford feeding their families. Simply put, many working families want to buy healthier food, but it’s just too expensive. Cutting off their food supply will not change that.

Unfortunately, the effects of HB1035 won’t stop at the kitchen pantry: not even close. If passed, HB1035 could evaporate the checkout line itself.

Since the late 1970s, large-scale grocery companies have outpriced the mom-and-pop shops of decades past. In their place, the communities of today are dominated by convenience stores, the business model of which is perfectly tailored to the low-income marketplace. These modern five and dimes survive thanks to their huge profit margin resulting from the use of modest storefronts and large supply chains. It is a genius business model.

Then there is the bad news. While structuring a business in this way provides an economic advantage, it also makes their existence vulnerable to small changes in the market. HB1035 is one such change.

HB1035 would require stores of all shapes and sizes to institute systems that evaluate which food a SNAP beneficiary can or cannot buy. Most stores–I would argue–would sooner stop taking SNAP dollars than absorb such a cost. If this happens, stores could lose enough regular customers that they have to close, only exacerbating the already eroded Arkansas tax base. This is not exactly the path forward. But assuming they stay open, these increased costs will drive prices up, hurting the pocketbooks of all shoppers.

It’s a lose-lose situation. If HB1035 passes, either prices will go up for you and your neighbors, or the single mothers that rely on SNAP won’t have a place to shop.

As an Arkansan who studies solutions to rural hunger and poverty, I applaud Representative Bentley for her compassion in filing HB1035. But for the state to justify burdening everyone from single mothers to bankers and the broader business community with potentially catastrophic costs, we had better know that HB1035 will work. Unfortunate as it may be, if the goal is to “give kids in our state … sippy cups full of milk and juice,” HB1035 not only falls short, it could worsen the situation.

A better policy would use the market to make healthy food more agreeable to the budgets of working-class Arkansans. To that end, a network of farmers markets might do the trick. Or Arkansas could work with companies like Wal-Mart to create a fleet of mobile vegetable markets, an idea that the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance has applied to one of its food pantries. If we can improve upon the shortcomings of HB1035 but continue toward its aim, a healthier Arkansas is certain.

But it seems that our Legislature aspires to more than improved well-being alone. Many of the bills, including HB1035, endeavor to make Arkansas–as Representative Bentley put it–a “pioneer” in areas like education, tax, health and hunger policy. Yet our policies also have the simple responsibility to work.

Sometimes that means going back to the drawing board.

Sean Alexander of Little Rock is a Marshall Scholar currently studying in the United Kingdom for a master of science degree in food security and development.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Editorial on 01/30/2017