Tuesday, March 19, 2013

South Carolina explores restriction on SNAP purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages

Economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach recently argued in the Christian Science Monitor against proposals to disallow purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits.
Without question, the advocates for a policy to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits have the best of intentions. But policymakers need to be careful not to let their zeal for combating obesity push them into hastily adopting policies that at best are unlikely to help fight obesity, and, at worst, can do substantial damage to the safety net.
New York City had proposed such a policy some time ago, and South Carolina was reported more recently to be considering a pilot study.  As with the SNAP policy suggestion discussed in yesterday's post, a pilot study is important, because there are serious concerns that SNAP spending restrictions could increase stigma and discourage participation by eligible potential participants.

Perhaps, a pilot study would show increased perceptions of stigma, reduced participation, and even hunger and food insecurity as a consequence of the sugar-sweetened beverage limitation.  At the same time, it is quite possible that the pilot policy would strengthen the healthy identity of SNAP benefits and reduce stigma.  The policy may be popular with low-income parents, who must manage the intense marketing environment for unhealthy beverages just as middle-income parents must.  As a practical matter, any proponents of such a pilot study should take seriously the concerns that the anti-hunger community has expressed about such policies.  As in yesterday's post, I think the views and experiences of SNAP participants should be most influential in this policy decision.

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