Thursday, December 27, 2012

A poverty comment

There were wo articles that led to me agreeing with Matt Yglesias about refocusing on cash transfers and wporrying less about how the money is spent.  One, was an expose on how the state of Georgia tries to keep people from receiving benefits.  Now it is fair pool to decide that, as a state or a society, that you don't want to give these benefits.  But doesn't it make sense to make that decision transparently instead of slowing adding in extra steps?

The other one was a link I found on Felix Salmon's webste called "Stop subsizing obesity".  What made this article surreal was that we did not get a discussion of ways to change agricultural subsidies to make high fructose corn syrup a less prevalent addition.  No, what we go was an attack on food stamps:
This could happen in two ways: first, remove the subsidy for sugar-sweetened beverages, since no one without a share in the profits can argue that the substance plays a constructive role in any diet. “There’s no rationale for continuing to subsidize them through SNAP benefits,” says Ludwig, “with the level of science we have linking their consumption to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.” New York City proposed a pilot program that would do precisely this back in 2011; it was rejected by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “too complex.”
Now, of all the targets they could go after, soda is the one that I am the most sympathetic to.  I have bene trying (with mixed success) to radically reduce my own consumption of the substance.  But look at the sorts of ideas that come out next:

Simultaneously, make it easier to buy real food; several cities, including New York, have programs that double the value of food stamps when used for purchases at farmers markets. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they’re used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets – indeed, everywhere people buy food.
Can we say the word "arbitrage opportunity"?  Maybe it would be inefficient, but look at how much more complex you are making a very basic program in order to reach a social goal.  And why are we targeting it at food stamp recipients?  If this is a worthwhile way to combat obesity, why not use a vice tax (which is an approach I can at least conceptually support).

So these types of issues are what are making me think maybe we should be much more basic in our approach to charity. 

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