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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.