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

An unacceptable infringement of freedom.

Photograph: Getty Images

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