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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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