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Food Stamps and the $41 Cake

The 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?




Beware of little expenses.
A small leak will sink a great ship.


—Benjamin Franklin


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 20%-30% lower.

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 understand this.

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 son's question.

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.

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