Such proposals have greatest promise when they can answer "yes" to some simple questions. Have the policy's sponsors won over any substantial fraction of the supposed beneficiaries? Does the policy treat people from different income backgrounds fairly and equally? Do the sponsors articulate the limits to the policy, so that the public is reassured the policy will not overreach?
Dan Sumner is an agricultural economist who participated in some recent work about food stamps with colleagues at the University of California Davis, where I am visiting. By email this morning, he explained his misgivings about the new proposal:
This policy proposal raises two questions in my mind. (1) Are we ready as a matter of policy to declare some legal foods are just BAD no matter what else one consumes and no matter the context? (2) Would such a ban have an effect on behavior of anyone, except those proposing the ban, who would presumably enjoy thinking that their taxes were not used to buy "bad" food and may then celebrate with a glass of red wine (which is already a banned food for food stamps)?In an op-ed today in the NYT, New York health officials favoring the proposal did describe its context in the midst of other efforts to promote good health. However, most of those examples were also about nutrition improvements for poor people.
It must be disappointing for policy sponsors when neither Marion Nestle nor the Center for Science in the Public Interest (see third paragraph in this link) approve of a proposal to improve the nutrition environment.
[Update Oct 11: CSPI writes by email to point out that executive director Michael Jacobson's statement on this policy, dated Oct 7, endorses the NYC proposal:
The USDA should approve New York City’s sensible request to test excluding soda and other sugary beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.You can imagine the voluminous comment page for the NYT coverage has much bluster on every side. One more subtle comment was an anecdote from Burt in Oregon:
The empty calories in soft drinks pose a major public health problem by promoting tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. It’s also the case that those diseases have a disproportionate impact on low-income Americans. However, the extent to which SNAP recipients’ purchases of soft drinks is contributing to poor diets and obesity is unclear and controversial. I applaud New York City for seeking to get some real data to inform the debate. As it is, industry is enjoying about a $4-billion-a-year subsidy thanks to people spending SNAP benefits on soft drinks.]
A woman once brought her boy to Mahatma Gandhi to have him tell her boy to stop eating sugar. He told them to return in two weeks. When they returned, he told the boy to stop eating sugar. When asked why he didn't tell the boy the first time to stop eating sugar, Gandhi replied, "Two weeks ago I was still eating sugar."[Update 10/14/2010: Tom Ashbrook's On Point debates this issue.]