Wall Street Journal
May 18, 2012
Food Stamps and the $41 Cake
How did this great nation travel from the common sense of our
grandparents to where we are today?
By WARREN KOZAK
Beware of little
A small leak will sink a great ship.
There is a large chain grocery store in my
neighborhood that I rarely frequent because the prices are too high. Instead, I
will travel an extra 30 blocks to another store where the costs per item are
I arrange my travel around this activity.
It takes a little extra effort, but within a year the savings are substantial.
As it turns out, I am not alone. The
average income of Costco discount shoppers, it was reported recently, is
$96,000—so perhaps they're not the millionaires and billionaires the president
talks about, yet not the folks one might immediately expect to be watching
their pennies either.
But every so often I will need one item
late at night—a quart of milk, a missing part of a school lunch—and I run over
to the high-price store nearby. There,
I've noticed something happening with increased regularity: The person ahead of me in line or at the next
checkout counter is using a benefits card. Since we are now in the third year
of our national recession and unemployment remains depressingly high, I
Recently I had to run into that store and,
sizing up the three lines, chose to stand behind a woman with one item in her
cart. It was one of those large ice-cream cakes. When the checkout person said
"Forty-one dollars," I wasn't the only one who blanched. The shopper's son, around 12, repeated it as a
question: "Forty-one dollars?"
I quickly calculated that the woman's cake
was eight times more expensive than the kind I make at home to celebrate
birthdays. The mother ignored her
She took out her benefits card, swiped it
through the machine, and they were off. My turn.
I stood there, wondering what lesson the
young boy takes away from this transaction. Does he grow up with the faintest
understanding of delayed gratification—that you have to earn your money before
you can buy candy—or, in this case, an ice-cream treat? I wondered how we
arrived at this point as a nation. I also felt like a chump.
The vast majority of Americans—Democrat,
Republican or independent—will readily help someone who cannot make ends meet
in a bad economy. Americans want a hungry child to be fed. I know this because
in no other country do people donate more to charities. Americans will go far
beyond what our taxes already pay for to help the less fortunate. We have been
blessed with overabundance in this land, and we are a very generous people.
But over the last four decades, our
government has quietly done away with almost all of the restrictions once
placed on food assistance. SNAP cards (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program) can be used to purchase practically anything with the exception of
liquor and cigarettes. These cards
are also openly and illegally sold for cash, which allows the recipient to buy
anything they want, including cigarettes and liquor.
Food assistance is helping many families
keep their heads above water when they would otherwise not get by, and many of
these families watch every dime. But the system also allows people to
flagrantly disregard the program's original purpose.
Of course there are instances of fraud in
every corner of the government, from Congress to defense spending. Why single
out food stamps? Because, with over 48 million Americans now using some form of
food assistance and few restrictions, the possibilities of waste are unlimited.
My grandmother did not serve on the
president's Council of Economic Advisers. She did not have an M.B.A. from
Harvard. She never went to high school because she had to go to work to support
her family. But she gave me an astute piece of financial advice when I was
about to enter the world. "Never," she told me, "spend more than
you earn" and "always try and save a little something."
When we wonder how this great nation
traveled from our grandparents' common sense to where we are today, it might be
easier to understand with this question: How did the country that created the
strongest middle class in history, the country that offered everyone the chance
to succeed, the country that built and paid for the transcontinental railroad
and the Hoover Dam, won World War II and put Neil Armstrong on the moon—how did
that country rack up trillions in debt?
One $41 cake at a time.
Mr. Kozak is the author
of "LeMay: The
Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009). A version of this article appeared May 18,
2012, on page A11 in the U.S.
edition of The Wall Street Journal,
with the headline: Food Stamps and the $41 Cake.