Salon provides us with an interesting ethical question/reminds us of its existence today, with this article about hip, educated young people who use food stamps to buy organic groceries. Much to the consternation of Mose, hipsters have been a perennial object of fascination here at Combat! blog, in part because they’re so difficult to pin down. In reporting the apparent uptick in hipster consumption of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, Jennifer Bleyer acknowledges the difficulty of proving that what she’s writing about is actually happening. “The increase in food stamp use among this demographic is hard to measure,” she admits, “as they represent a cross section of characteristics not specifically tracked by the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.” When writing about hipsters, one must continually examine the possibility that they do not exist. For Bleyer’s purposes, the hipster is a fairly identifiable, if vague, marketing demographic: twenty/thirtysomething, college-educated, and willing to pay money for organic tarragon. In this case, the money is yours.
Alert reader Zach Sanderson sent me this article describing a proposal in the Nebraska legislature to tie welfare benefits to drug testing. Introduced by Senator Charlie Janssen of Fremont—population 26,000—the bill would require new applicants and current recipients of public assistance to submit to random tests, as authorized by the 1990 congressional overhaul of the federal welfare system. “When a taxpayer gives assistance to somebody, it’s assistance so they can get back up on their feet,” Janssen told ABC. “It’s kind of a slap in the face to the taxpayers when they say, ‘We’re going to get up on our feet while we’re doing drugs.'” Janssen makes a good point, whose incisiveness is dulled only slightly by its being echoed from every barstool in the country during tax season. In 2006, Nebraska spent just over $2 billion on welfare—which includes food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, but not, somehow, Medicare, college scholarships or farm subsidies—to support 320,000 recipients.* Surely, some of those people are wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Unfortunately, administering drug tests to all of them—at an average rate of $42 per test, according to the Department of Education—would cost the state $13.4 million, and that’s just to do it once. Janssen himself admits that the costs of testing would, at least in the short term, make his plan unworkable. “This is part of our budget woes…paying people who aren’t truly trying to rehabilitate themselves and get off the state welfare system,” he said. “But the short-term cost right now is probably going to be overwhelming.” Which raises an interesting question: what, exactly, do we spend money on welfare for?