I would certainly concede that using SNAP to buy soda is not ideal. As taxpayers, we hope that our money is spent by government agencies and benefit recipients alike in a responsible and efficient manner. However, I think this soda ban is bad public policy because it is based on an overgeneralization of the facts and it, in my opinion, unfairly targets food stamp users for what I believe will be a very small effect on obesity in NYC. Here's why:
1. Though BMI and income are negatively correlated, USDA studies show that there is no credible evidence that food stamp users are more obese than comparable low-income shoppers who do not use food stamps. There is no good reason for targeting food stamp users over other low-income consumers except for the (decidedly undemocratic) reason that we can because we control the purse strings.
2. Though studies show that 6% of food stamp dollars go to purchase soda, there is no evidence that this is a higher than the percentage of food dollars comparable low-income families spent on soda. Again, targeting food stamp users over other low-income families is not justifiable.
3. Food stamp participant households stay on the program an average of 9 months. A 9-month soda ban will have no appreciable effect the BMIs of affected family members.
4. We don't know what a soda ban will do to food purchasing habits. Has anyone done any research on what types of foods food stamp users would buy instead of soda? I'm not aware of any study, for example, that compares food stamp users' food purchases before the stimulus SNAP bump and after. If we think food stamp users are incapable of or unwilling to make healthy choices without this ban, then shouldn't we also assume they'll substitute toward twinkies or ice cream or the coffee to get that nutrient-free caffeine fix? By the way, if the ban is not about obesity (which it is...), but rather just about the public expense of "non-food" items, then why isn't anyone talking about banning the purchase of those big red buckets of Folgers coffee?
5. The average SNAP benefit per person per week is about $30. 6% of $30 is $1.80. Do we really think that banning $1.80 worth of soda and encouraging (read: gambling on) a $1.80 purchase of fresh fruits or vegetables is really going to make people less obese?
6. Most food stamp participant households spend out-of-pocket monies on food to supplement their too-low food stamp budget. How much of that supplemental food budget is spent on soda? If we force non-soda purchases with food stamps, will people simply increase soda purchases with their out-of-pocket monies and buy non-soda items normally purchased with out-of-pocket money with food stamps? I wonder if food buying habits are a zero-sum game, so to speak.
For the above reasons, I would guess that the cost-benefit calculus just doesn't add up. We're talking about costs in city, state and federal staff time, costs to combat the soda lobbies, costs to determine and fight about what constitutes a "soda", costs to re-educate food retailers on SNAP regulations, and more abstract costs in preventing utility maximization by food stamp users, among others...Unless, of course, we think that food stamp users aren't currently maximizing their utility when they purchase soda because they're too stupid, which is a blatantly racist, classist statement, or too misinformed, which is a valid critique of our woefully inadequate SNAP nutrition education programs. And all of that for a negligible effect on obesity and, consequently, on obesity-related health expenditures.
I would also add that the fact that Mayor Bloomberg pursued a general soda tax, which failed in the state legislature, inadvertently admits that a soda ban for everyone, regardless of income, is a far more just and effective policy than a soda ban for food stamp users.
Frankly, the ban pisses me off. I can't make anything of this ban except that it's a purely political move to appear to be making good on a promise to reduce obesity in the city, all the while sidestepping the legislative process because it rejected a soda tax that might make voters--middle and high income people--mad. There are far better ways to reduce obesity--at least the soda tax would have generated some revenue for the city!
I clearly have a pretty strong stance on this, what do you all think? You could pretty easily avoid dealing with any of my objections if you said that (1) the ban is just about public purchase of non-food items and not primarily about obesity reduction, and (2) that you'd support a food stamp purchase ban on coffee, too. But then I'd invoke the ever-popular slippery slope argument...