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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.