Nanny State of the Week: Feds Marketing Food Stamps with Bingo Games, TV Ads

SNAPfrom – Watchdog.org – by Eric Boehm

Maybe you don’t want to depend on food stamps to feed your family.

Maybe the federal government can convince you otherwise.

For seven years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been using food stamp funds to run a recruitment program that attempts to convince more American to sign up for the welfare program.

The so-called “SNAP Outreach Plans” (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the technical name for the food stamp program) have included taxpayer-funded advertising on radio and television, bingo games intended to lure seniors into signing up for the program and even “food stamp parties” organized by state level SNAP officials.

The efforts have apparently paid off, as the number of Americans signed up for food stamps has skyrocketed in recent years.

In 2000, 17 million Americans were getting food stamps. Last year the number rose to 46 million, down a tick from the peak of 47 million in 2012.

That’s not to say that food stamps are a part of the nanny state, though some might feel that way. Providing food to those who are truly needy is a sensible part of a basic government safety net.

But recruiting people into that program – persuading Americans to accept welfare that they may not want, or need – that’s a Nanny State policy by any definition of the term.

A few years back, the Washington Post took a look at those recruiting efforts. Alabama hands out fliers that read: “Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home,” the paper reported.

The piece centered on Dillie Nerios, a USDA food stamp recruiter in Florida.

“Help is available,” she tells hundreds of seniors each week, the Post wrote. “You deserve it. So, yes or no?”

It’s subtle, but the language being used there is straight out of the Nanny State playbook. “Bring your money home.” “You deserve it.” You’re paying for those government benefits that others are receiving, so why not get a piece of the action for yourself. It’s a message that appeals simultaneously to the altruistic and selfish parts of human nature, without causing the two to contradict each other.

And don’t blame President Barack Obama – or at least don’t blame only Obama. The USDA started running radio ads encouraging Americans to sign up for food stamps back in 2004. During the George W. Bush administration, food stamp enrollment climbed by 63 percent, a good portion of that total coming before the Great Recession.

But this is one nanny state problem that might be getting a solution.

A proposed new rule would prevent the USDA from using those recruiting tools to persuade Americans to sign up for SNAP.

“Persuasive practices constitute coercing or pressuring an individual to apply, or providing incentives to fill out an application,” the rule says. That means no more food stamp bingo nights, no more high-pressure advertising on radio and TV.

The new rule is the result of the 2014 farm bill, which instructed the USDA to change its policy and stop government agents from coercing people into joining the food stamp brigade. It may not do much to reduce the number of people on the rolls, but it will at least do away with the disturbing paternalistic sign-up efforts.

The lesson in all this: Government should measure the success of its welfare programs by how many people are lifted out of poverty.

A nanny state measures success by how many people it can get enrolled into government programs, outcomes be damned.

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