Foodies on the Dole

Via Instapundit, a story (long overdue?) about students who are increasingly encouraged to enroll in food stamps. Food stamps and other forms of social welfare aren’t necessarily a bad thing — some families honestly live below or near the poverty line and food stamps help them cover the cost of one of life’s truly basic necessities; I grew up around many such people and saw how they lived first hand. Unfortunately, like almost all government handouts (or, if you prefer a nicer euphemism, “entitlement programs” [though the word “entitlement” certain bears with it a certain amount of baggage]), food stamps have long since become abused by people who, to put it mildly, do not need them and should not have them.

One particularly galling example is that of a self-proclaimed “foodie” who uses his food stamps to dine… rather more extravagantly than one might hope, given the fact that he’s using taxpayer money:

[Gerry] Mak, 31, grew up in Westchester, graduated from the University of Chicago and toiled in publishing in New York during his 20s before moving to Baltimore last year with a meager part-time blogging job and prospects for little else. About half of his friends in Baltimore have been getting food stamps since the economy toppled, so he decided to give it a try; to his delight, he qualified for $200 a month.

I’m sort of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing,” he said, fondly remembering a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. “I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it’s great that you can get anything.” [emphasis added]

Rather than being a sort of “last resort” for people who’re down on their luck, then, food stamps are becoming an easy refuge for people who quit their jobs “toiling” in some industry to become part-time bloggers with no prospects and who refuse to live frugally. After all, roasted rabbit is an extravagance that most people who aren’t on the dole generally save for special occasions. Gerry Mak appears to be the sort of person who expects the taxpayers to make up the difference between his low-paying, part-time blogging job and his expensive, beyond-his-means “foodie” lifestyle:

Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.


At Magida’s brick row house in Baltimore, she and Mak minced garlic while observing that one of the upsides of unemployment was having plenty of time to cook elaborate meals, and that among their friends, they had let go of any bad feelings about how their food was procured.

“It’s not a thing people feel ashamed of, at least not around here,” said Mak. “It feels like a necessity right now.”

While such cases are undoubtedly on the infuriatingly extreme end of the spectrum, even Portland State University has a website dedicated to instructing students on how to get on the dole:

Being a college student is hard work! Not just academically, but   financially too. As tuition increases, many students struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes grants and loans don’t stretch far enough and students are forced to work low-paying jobs. For some, this still is not enough to get by. Having to choose between buying groceries or a $125 textbook is a tough decision that many students have been forced to make at some point in their college careers. As if taking a full class load wasn’t stressful enough! [emphasis added]

Heaven forfend that a student should have to work a low-paying job!

Now again, I’m not suggesting that, for some students, enrolling in food stamps isn’t a necessary step. Non-traditional students or students with families or mortgages or whatever may very well face financial challenges that most students probably don’t. No, scratch that — they might face financial challenges that most students almost certainly do not. We all know that the money saved on food — or, rather, the money redistributed from taxpayers — is usually spent on alcohol, video games, and marijuana, not that proverbial “$125 textbook” that forces some starving undergrad to make a tough choice about whether buy groceries or to come prepared to class (as if that ever happens anyways).

Perhaps unintentially (?), this promotes a culture of dependency in which, no matter what, if some putative “need” goes unmet, one can expect the government to step in and make up the difference. In its most extreme form, you have “foodies” who feel no shame about spending all their time cooking extravagant meals paid for by the government instead of finding work.

While to my knowledge there is no website at the University of Oregon encouraging students to sign up for food stamps en masse, we certainly have our share of students who do just that:

Currently the program is only eligible to students who work more than 20 hours a week or are on a work-study program, but Wells thinks the program should change this.

“I know a lot of people who don’t work full-time and could use this program,” Wells said. “It’s free, and it saves money — everyone could use that.”

I know so many kids who use their stamp money to buy Slurpees and junk food,” Wells said. “They let you get away with a lot, but I feel like I’m cheating the program that way.” [emphasis added]*

While this kid is to be commended for feeling like a thieving cheat by spending taxpayer dollars on “Slurpees and junk food,” he still hasn’t quite freed himself from the mentality of entitlement, laboring as he is under the illusion that food stamps are “free” and “save money.” Indeed, as another University of Oregon student wrote at the time:

Scott Wells, when referring to the aid he receives each month, says, “It’s free, and it saves money — everybody could use that.”Unfortunately, [the] article provided no counter to the notion that this money is, indeed, “free.” In fact, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services, in May 2009, the average recipient received $250 per household and the state of Oregon pays $78 million per month for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. For those of us who pay into the tax system, it is troublesome to see this program seemingly promoted without discussion as to where this money comes from.

Benefits should not be viewed as a “reward for hard work.”


[T]he fact remains that those who work for their money and legitimately make ends meet often cannot afford luxuries such as delicious convenience store treats. Those on a tight budget often shop in bulk and eat at home. The message of this article seemed clear enough to me: Why work under the constraints of a budget when you can simply get “free” money from someone else’s pocket?

Quite right. Food stamps should be reserved for people who can prove actual hardship (I myself can attest that, even while paying University of Oregon tuition out of pocket, a 20-hour work week is more than sufficient to make ends meet) and should be limited to what most people would agree to be “basic staples.”

Vegetables, even of the “organic” variety are incredibly cheap and rice can nearly be had for pennies on the dollar. By contrast the last time I checked (quite some time ago, to be honest), video games were around $40-60 each and cell phone plans frequently cost in excess of $100/month. Yet, to see a student make it through a 50-minute class without sending a text message once a minute, only to walk out into the hallway after class and have the phone glue to their head almost immediately is practically unheard of anymore.

If the average undergraduate is in such dire financial straits as to warrant going on welfare, perhaps they should first begin to cut out those sorts of budgetary extravagances — I pay $30/month for a cheap cellular plan (and in my opinion, that’s too much) and a land line is even cheaper — before they decide to soak the taxpayers for Slurpee money.

* In a past life, I slung lattes for a summer to make ends meet (and full disclosure: I took unemployment one time for something like 3 weeks between jobs), and was constantly enraged by this one guy who’d come in and pay for the most expensive cold drink he could possibly get — usually something around $4 or more — and pay for it on his Oregon Trail card. He wasn’t the only one, but he certainly was the worst offender.


2 Responses to “Foodies on the Dole”

  1. 1 Matt
    March 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    One of those kids was in my tennis class. I’m not terribly surprised by his comment.

    It always annoyed me that Teach For America is explicitly engineered so that its people are put on to food stamps. The founder makes a huge stink about how she wants only the best and the brightest (putting them through a bizarre application process that as often as not weeds out the good educators and puts the not-so-good ones in) and how they need a program with integrity, and then pays them next to nothing (okay, it is a service position to be sure) and works with them to get them on food stamps. I feel like this is a group of people who should probably not be put on food stamps, although the ones I knew were pretty frugal by necessity, and not cooking up braised rabbit or whatever.

  2. 2 Vincent
    March 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    I didn’t realize that Teach for America basically requires people to go on food stamps. I guess it’s one way of keeping budgets down: just dump certain things on another branch of the government, one that’s certainly better funded and less susceptible to taxpayer discontent — once people get their “entitlements,” they unsurprisingly start to feel… entitled.

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