In which the New York Times punches downward towards food stamp recipients


A piece in the New York Times emerged this weekend on a recent study of SNAP consumption patterns that drew much deserved ire from those who don’t think it’s a-ok to stigmatize hungry people. The writer, Anahad O’Conner, uses USDA data on foods typically purchased by households with SNAP benefits to report that the program encourages unhealthy behavior—mainly, drinking soda.

There was a widely-shared response that functionally destroys O’Conner’s entire approach to this subject, which you should read. The program doesn’t actually encourage drinking soda in a substantively different manner than literally every other type of income source. Households that don’t receive food stamps buy soft drinks at nearly the same rate, probably because this has less to do with public assistance and more that people in generally enjoy sweetened beverages. In fact the two groups aren’t dissimilar in their food consumption habits in generally, which elicits the question of why this piece pays particular attention to the hungry poor.

You could, theoretically, ground this in some greater public health concern, which does exist. This article attempts to invoke this concern in the end but ends up portraying it as a liberal paternalistic policy argument. The idea that folks who need help buying food—an indictment itself of the way we distribute resources—deserve some special type of technocratic humiliation is awful. This program, which is inadequate anyway, does not need tinkering to produce behavioral outcomes that non-SNAP households get to avoid by virtue of having enough money to eat.

So I’d say if you find yourself putting words to screen that effectively food-guilts the poor—stop. Just, don’t do it. Even if you’re just writing for the foodie section of the New York Times and figure you could score some easy stereotype-clicks by misrepresenting a study to appeal to a weekend reader’s sense of cultural superiority. Framing such information in a way to punch downward is not a worthy moral endeavor, and the pursuit of which here is the only aspect that deserves shame.


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