With proposals in several cities for taxes on sugared drinks, a backlash of television advertisements has appeared with shoppers insisting that they can decide what to buy in the grocery store without the government meddling in the shopping cart.
Apart from the ever-present desire of governments to obtain more money, the rationale for this tax is to help curb the epidemic of obesity that has overtaken the United States. Sugared drinks, such as juice drinks and soft drinks are particular targets. In essence this would be another “sin tax, ” such as those imposed on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, or at best, a “user tax, ” such as those on gasoline.
But, there are two permutations of this question. Although they look similar, there are really two separate issues. One involves a tax for everyone on all sugared drinks; the other is a limitation on purchasing this type of item (and potentially other junk foods) with food stamps.
Personally, I like as little government intervention in my private life as possible. I don’t think that taxing soda pop will stop me from drinking my daily bottle (although diet drinks may not be taxed), but I really am offended that some agency may try to decide what I should and shouldn’t eat via taxes on money I earned.
However, the other question is different: should people who receive food stamps be able to buy these highly sugared foods with taxpayer money?
Restrictions already exist on almost every kind of welfare and social program. The WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program has specific limitations. Although states may choose their own lists, generally, only products such as formula, dairy products, certain meats, vegetables, and staples are covered. The program was begun to ensure basic nutrition for women and children who live in marginal financial situations.
There already are restrictions on food stamps (now usually a debit card). You can’t buy everything that’s available in a grocery store with them. No alcohol or cigarettes, or household products, can be paid for with food stamps. You can’t even buy all foods you might find in the grocery store: already prepared foods are excluded, such as roasted chickens, deli foods, etc. You can’t use them at restaurants.
It just makes sense that these restrictions apply. The money with which food stamp purchases are made was not earned by the people who are spending it. Without implying any sort of snobbery toward those who need to take advantage of these programs, this money is not the same as a gift which could be used for anything. The food stamp program was designed to help people who are unable to earn enough money to buy healthy foods. The restriction on prepared foods is meant to encourage choosing healthy ingredients, and to make the food dollars stretch farther. (One could debate whether it has been successful in this goal, but that’s a different topic.)
So, restricting food stamp purchases of highly sugared drinks, and perhaps even some “junk foods, ” may not be out of line with the goals of the food stamp program.
What do you think?