What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”–Thomas Paine
We bought our Thanksgiving turkey Monday. It presented an ethical dilemma not usually posed by turkeys, except maybe for vegetarians or the President deciding which turkey to pardon. That’s because its purchase highlighted some of the problems with the government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Normally each year I search the ads to find the very best turkey price possible. Then I buy one for the holiday and one for the freezer. But this year, the country is suffering turkey sticker shock. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, turkey prices have risen 25 cents a pound higher over 2010. The overall cost of a traditional Thanksgiving feast is up 13% for the year, largely due to the turkey.
One of the best turkey prices in my area this year was offered at Quality Food Centers (QFC) for $.39 cents per pound with a $25 purchase. QFC is not close or convenient to me. But normally, I would have made the trip. This year, with the food card in my pocket, I had no incentive to do so. In fact, the fresh turkeys at Costco with a price of $.89 per pound started to look pretty tasty.
Having the food benefits distorts my normal shopping decisions. Why take the time to clip coupons and compare prices? Or to buy generic brands? Or to bake cookies for a school fundraiser instead of purchasing Safeway’s finest. Or why take that extra trip to save a few dollars on a turkey? There is no incentive to save money as long as the amount stays within the limits of the monthly benefit. If I clip a coupon, I don’t get an extra dollar in my pocket. It means I can buy an extra dollar’s worth of food, but to be truthful, the government dollars are generous enough that I don’t need it. The saved amount then rolls into the next month’s benefit.
Anything that is given for free loses value. The problem exists in health care, education and housing.
No easy solutions exist to change this. If the government tries, for example, to allow people to keep a portion of any money they save from their monthly allotment, we run the risk of having parents starve their children in order to get cash. If we ask people to work for their benefits, (and personally I think we should), say cleaning parks or removing graffiti, it still won’t provide a reason for recipients to spend their benefits responsibly. If we try to tailor the amount so exactly that recipients must scrape to make it to the end of each month, we again run the risk that some will go hungry. An amount that is generous in the Pacific Northwest might not work for someone in inner-city Detroit.
There are no easy answers. I still clip coupons and buy generic brand products. I still pass up expensive foods, even on sale. I don’t buy processed foods or non-essentials. Because I hate needing help, and that’s how I was raised. But I did buy my turkey at Safeway.