Food stamps are just capital controls for poor people

If you want to introduce higher prices for poor people, at least do it openly.

The Guardian's Patrick Butler reports that food stamps are to replace the cash payments currently received by vulnerable people in short-term financial crisis. He writes:

Rather than, as now, offering a cash loan, most councils will from April offer new applicants who qualify for emergency assistance a one-off voucher redeemable for goods such as food and nappies.

Many of the 150 local authorities in England running welfare schemes have confirmed that they will issue the vouchers in the form of payment cards, which will be blocked or monitored to prevent the holder using them for alcohol, cigarettes or gambling.

In classic economics-blogging style, here's another news story. Cyprus is to impose capital controls, for a seven-day trial period. The FT's Joshua Chaffin reports:

Capital controls will be deployed to prevent a stampede of withdrawals by panicked depositors when the banks reopen, possibly on Thursday, after a closure that has dragged on for nearly two weeks.

In broad terms, they will limit the ability to withdraw money, or shift it between accounts or across borders, according to officials. The measures might also delay the processing of cheques.

The link is that both measures won't have the absolute effect that their promotors might hope; rather, they impose a huge, uncontrollable and grey-market tariff on attempts to do what people are used to being able to do freely.

The Cypriot capital controls are the more obvious example of this. For the next week, a euro in Cyprus is worth less than a euro elsewhere. How much less, we don't know, and there will probably never be a clear market rate – especially if the controls are lifted in early April, which the people of Cyprus will surely be hoping will happen.

Nonetheless, if a Cypriot finds themselves urgently needing to get a large number of euros out of the country – say, to close a purchase on a house in the French Riviera – it's relatively obvious what they have to do. Offer someone in the "real" eurozone a quantity of euros in Cyprus to spend the money for them. The premium offered depends on the risk that the capital controls will not be lifted, as well as the value our outsider places on euros which can only be spent in Cyprus, but it's fairly doable from a technical point of view.

Of course, if the premium is too high – if you'd need to promise €5m (Cypriot) to get someone to spend €1m (non-Cypriot) – then you'll likely see movement from the grey market to the black market. In other words, suitcases full of money crossing the Adriatic.

Those effects are basically the same as what we will see if food stamps become widespread. It's best to think of food stamps as a separate currency; one which can only be used buy a certain list of items. Just like the Cypriot euro, it has "capital controls" – you can't just walk up to a bureau d'exchange and hand food stamps in and get pound sterling in return. But just like the Cypriot euro, there are ways – easy ways – of getting around them.

The legal way – analogous to the complicated deal to hand over money in two nations – is as simple here as offering someone a £20 food stamp for a £12 bottle of gin. Given most people buy food, that's a relatively good deal for the person who ends up with £8 profit; they essentially get a portion of their groceries paid for by someone in crippling financial need.

Since food stamps are useful for most people, the premium is unlikely to be very high. But if it is, we get to the suitcase-full-of-money option: find someone who'll take food stamps in exchange for "contraband". Given the ease with which 15-year-olds get drunk in this country, it's a fairly good bet that there are a few shops happy to sell booze to people they aren't allowed to. They might charge rip-off prices, knowing that the buyer's hardly going to complain, but they'll do it.

In the end, then, what is the outcome of food stamps? All things considered, they don't force people in financial difficulty to spend their money on "necessities" rather than "luxuries" (with the two categories odiously defined by government, rather than the individuals themselves). Instead, they impose a tariff on purchases of "luxuries" for those people.

The same economic effect could be had more directly by requiring shops to display two prices for booze and fags: a regular price, and a higher price for "poor people". Given the bizarre crossover between those in favour of welfare cards yet against minimum pricing because it hits the poor hardest – a peculiarly Tory type of libertarianism (fauxbertarianism? libertoryanism?) – perhaps making the doublethink explicit might change their minds one way or another.

US style food stamps. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser