Food stamps: the goverment quietly robs its citizens of the power to spend their own money

An unacceptable infringement of freedom.

This week, the government quietly and fundamentally shifted its treatment of benefit claimants. I’m not talking about yet another cut, but instead the decision that from next month individuals seeking cash loans from their council for a short-term financial crisis will now be issued with food vouchers instead of money.

Vulnerable people who have had money stolen or have had their benefits delayed can currently apply to their council for a short-term loan of up to £50, but 150 councils have now indicated that they will soon be issuing payment cards instead, and these will prevent the holder using the money for alcohol, cigarettes and gambling.

At first glance, this might seem sensible enough. Why should the state be lending money to someone who will drink or gamble that cash away? The reason this short-term lending system exists is to prevent citizens from going hungry when the social safety net fails — and under the new system, that won’t change.

But, the first problem is that if the government’s intention is to nanny benefit claimants and to bar them from spending their money on fags and booze, it won’t work. Anyone with a little determination and half a brain cell will simply swap their food vouchers with a friend in exchange for their contraband. Everyone needs food, after all, and at worst it will simply make drinking and smoking a little more expensive — if your entrepreneurial friend demands £10 of food vouchers for their £8 packet of cigarettes, say.

The second problem is that robbing an individual of the power to spend money as they wish is an unacceptable infringement on a person’s freedom, and it illustrates the contempt with which the government, and many voters, holds benefit claimants. The same could be said of asylum seekers, who are already subjected to a cruel, degrading and restrictive voucher regime.

I’ve found the book Poor Economics one of the most intelligent development books in recent years, and one of its insights is this: faced with limited funds, few humans are 100 per cent strategic in the way they spend their funds. Interfering civil servants (or development economists) might hope that the poor will prioritise their basic nutritional needs above all else, spending only on luxuries once they’re satisfied their family is eating three well-balanced meals a day. But, like anyone else, someone on a restricted income is likely to sacrifice some of their food budget to spend it on such ‘fripperies’ as a TV, a mobile phone, or a bottle of vodka. And frankly, I know I’d rather eat dry toast and sometimes watch the telly than go without entertainment but plenty of hearty stews.

Increase someone’s salary a little, and they are unlikely to spend that extra stipend on high-quality protein and vitamin supplements, and much more likely to treat themselves to a chocolate bar, or a beer, or a lottery ticket.

This might seem like an alien concept to the average Spear’s reader, who is fortunate enough not to have to choose between goods in this way, but most will fondly recall their university years and if these were anything like mine, weeks could go by on a basic diet of beans on toast and pasta when money had been frittered away on bad wine and party dresses. And what student, when slipped a few quid by a kindly relative, would rush out to buy the brazil nuts and Berocca so needed to improve concentration and increase essay-productivity, thus improving future earning potential? 

The point of this is, some people when given an emergency £50 loan will carefully spend it on their food shop, and will try their hardest to buy as sensible a basket of goods as they can to tide them over while they wait for their money to come through. Others will go out, get drunk, and find themselves pestering their friends for food for food, or going hungry, until finally they get their hands on the next cheque. More of us probably fall in the latter camp than the former. 

Far more importantly, it is wrong to rob fully able adults of the ability to make wrong choices, and allowing any government to rob its citizens of autonomy in this way is very dangerous indeed.

This article first appeared on Spears magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why it's a mistake to assume that Jeremy Corbyn has already won

The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury on why the race to be Labour's leader is far from over.

They think it’s all over.

But they’re wrong.

The fat lady has yet to sing.

The commentary and reporting around the Labour party leadership campaign has started to assume we have a winner already in Jeremy Corbyn. The analysis, conjecture, predictions/complete guesswork about what happens next has begun in earnest. So we have seen speculation about who will be appointed to a Corbyn shadow cabinet, and “meet the team” pieces about Jeremy’s backroom operation.

Which is all very interesting and makes for the usual Westminster knockabout of who might be up and who might be going in the other direction pdq...

But I think it’s a mistake to say that Jeremy has already won.

Because I hear that tens of thousands of Labour party members, affiliates and registered supporters are yet to receive their ballot papers. And I am one of them. I can’t remember the last time I checked my post quite so religiously! But alas, my papers are yet to arrive.

This worries me a bit about the process. But mostly (assuming all the remaining ballots finally land in enough time to let us all vote) it tells me that frankly it’s still game on as far as the battle to become the next leader of the Labour party is concerned.

And this is reinforced when we consider the tens of thousands who have apparently received their papers but who have yet to vote. At every event I have attended in the last couple of weeks, and in at least half of all conversations I have had with members across the country, members are still making their minds up.

This is why we have to continue fighting for every vote until the end – and I will be fighting to get out every vote I possibly can for Yvette Cooper.

Over the campaign, Yvette has shown that she has a clear vision of the kind of Britain that she wants to see.

A Britain that tackles head-on the challenges of globalisation. Instead of the low-wage low-skill cul-de-sac being crafted by the Tories, Yvette's vision is for 2m more high skill manufacturing jobs. To support families she will prioritise a modern childcare system with 30 hours of fully funded child care for all 3 and 4 year olds and she will revive the bravery of post war governments to make sure 2m more homes are built within ten years.

It's an optimistic vision which taps into what most people in this country want. A job and a home.

And the responses of the focus groups on Newsnight a few days ago were telling – Yvette is clearly best placed to take us on the long journey to the 2020 general election by winning back former Labour voters.

We will not win an election without winning these groups back – and we will have to move some people who were in the blue column this time, to the red one next time. There is no other way to do it – and Yvette is the only person who can grow our party outwards so that once again we can build a winning coalition of voters across the country.