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.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.