Food Stamp Confessions: Why not Just Give Cash?

Years back, I had an enjoyable but low paying job at a small non-profit organization. This was in a new city. I had little money at the time and needed to find a place to live quickly. I found an apartment in a low rent, working class area of the city and ended up staying there far longer than I initially planned. This was not because I had to, but because I enjoyed living in the area and moving is a lot of work in itself.

While I was there I befriended quite a few people with an assortment of backgrounds and pasts. One man in particular was a middle aged divorcee, with many children that he largely had to take care of on his own. His ex-wife neglected to send any form of child support and apparently had legal troubles of her own.  I never knew why the guy had so many kids nor did I wish to ask. In fact I never knew how many he actually had. My estimate is somewhere between six and eleven. But, they never stood still for me to count them nor were they usually ever in one place. It seemed every-time I came by I saw one I had not previously seen. What I do know is that, he spent nearly every moment of his free time tending to them in one way or another. They absorbed all his time and a great of deal of his spending money. I always wanted to ask why he had so many, but I never thought anything positive would come out of that line of questioning.

This was at a time when the economy was not so good, and all the guy could find was a part time job cooking at a fast food establishment. He frequently asked me to assist in finding him work elsewhere, but I did not have many connections in the city at the time and he lacked the background that was needed for work with my employer.

Unsurprisingly, he turned to a combination of the state and the people he knew to make up for the money needed to support himself and his children, which he was not getting from the economy. On days when he had to work short notice, he asked me for transportation, which I was happy to provide. It was only a short distance and I often got a free meal in return. In addition to this he would frequently make arrangements with me, in which I could use his food-stamps card in exchange for cash.

He generally made it worth my while by giving me more in food-stamps than he requested in cash. Though the exact amount varied from time to time, I was often offered a sizable amount more than I was paying out. This kind of bothered the part of me that sees charging excessive interest or imposing pointless user fees as exploitative, but the man was insistent, and my desire to help and my need to feed myself were sufficient to override any unspoken objections I may have had.

The arrangement worked out for both of us for a while. Food was my primary expense  in those days, and he apparently was given more than enough food money for himself and his kids. When asked, he would tell me he spent the cash I gave him on things like clothes for his kids, as well as medicine and diapers, though I know he was not above the occasional pack of cigarettes. Not that I blamed him.

During this time, he was able to purchase a car, which allowed him to get to work without my assistance, causing me to suspect our arrangement helped a great deal. That said, it was not always convenient. He would often ask for cash on fairly short notice, and I had to plan my shopping around times when he could give me his food stamps card. When I did finally move from that area, maintaining the arrangement simply became undoable.

My experiences reinforced my belief that if we are going to be giving people government money, why not just give them cash or some equivalent? After all, if they can exchange it for cash anyway, why not just give them more freedom to make whatever purchases they desire? It seems that much of the opposition to this idea comes from a puritanical belief that people using the welfare state should not be able to use government money for anything but basic needs. As far as I can tell each individual is a much better judge of what their needs truly are than the people wishing to impose such restrictions on them.


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