According to U.S. government standards, more than half of Americans are overweight. This fact makes the United States the fattest country in the world. In the near future, health experts warn that the United States’ obesity could reach epidemic levels. Therefore, any step to curb rising obesity rates would be welcome. One such measure is Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s welfare reform proposal to prevent food stamp debit cards from being used to purchase junk food.
According to the National Institutes of Health, medical conditions due to obesity cost the health care system nearly $100 billion a year. Obesity is the major precipitant for diabetes and heart disease, which are the leading causes of death in the United States. Obesity, in most cases, is a manifestation of poor nutrition. And junk food is often a major factor in poor nutrition. Forcing food stamp users to purchase healthy foods could be the first step in addressing the country’s obesity problem.
Currently, the government’s message regarding nutrition is unclear. While advocating nutrition, government food stamp programs allow purchases of junk food. The implementation of Pawlenty’s proposal would streamline the government’s message as well as improve the effectiveness of food assistance programs.
Critics of the proposal claim that such legislation is beyond the realm of government because it affects personal choice. Curiously, the Republican governor’s plan seems somewhat contrary to his party’s anthem of less government involvement in people’s private lives. By adopting a paternalistic approach to government by advocating junk food regulations, Pawlenty supports interventionist positions normally advocated by so-called “liberals.” Still, Pawlenty’s proposal could, if enacted, benefit both the state of Minnesota and the approximately 200,000 Minnesotans who receive food stamps. To argue that the plan is an undue intrusion on personal choice assumes that food stamps are personal property of the recipients. That assumption is false. Food stamps are government issued and intended to provide for the nutrition of recipients. Pawlenty’s proposal would merely clarify those intentions. While personal money equates personal choice, government-funded programs remain subject to government choice. When granting public funds, the government has a right and the obligation to ensure its purpose is fulfilled. It is true this proposal implies the welfare class cannot be trusted and is irresponsible. However, the benefits food stamp users would receive from the proposed change should not be derailed by perceptions that the government is embracing stereotypes.
A major hurdle to the proposal involves the categorization of food and how the law would be enforced. An exclusive approach would entail the creation of a massive database detailing which foods are considered junk food. Though such a measure would spark rebuffs and intense lobbying from corporations and commodity groups, it would be plausible. The database would be created by a panel of nutritionists whose duties would include deciding which foods are junk foods and clarifying the nature of junk food. The inclusive approach would follow the form of the federal government’s Women, Infants, and Children program by pre-choosing essentials from the various food groups.
Advocating this proposal should not be construed as an argument that poorer people are more likely to be obese than the more well-to-do. Obesity among richer Americans is just as much a problem as it is among the poor. Pawlenty’s proposal is just a start, and new programs will have to be developed to more inclusively address the problem of obesity.
In order to institute the change in policy, Pawlenty will first have to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the food stamp program. If the waiver is granted, Minnesota would become the first state to enact such a change. As a result, Minnesota could become a leader in subsidized nutrition policy. Pawlenty should be applauded for recognizing that food stamp regulations should be tightened.