08/17/04 — Feed the Hungry: An economical plan for preventing hunger

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Feed the Hungry: An economical plan for preventing hunger

Economist Mike Walton has an interesting suggestion — that the government eliminate much of the bureaucracy that runs the so-called “entitlement” programs for the poor.

The bureaucracy is there mainly to ensure that the money is spent as intended — some for housing, some for food, some for medical care, and so on. Instead of giving money to the recipients, Walton suggests that the government give them vouchers to pay for whatever it is that the taxpayers are buying for them.

To some extent, the food stamp program does that, since only food can legally be traded for food stamps or bought with the food-stamp program’s debit cards.

Billions of dollars in the salaries of government workers could be saved, or so it seems, by using vouchers instead of cash, for other programs, and it could be done without cutting the handouts.

Dr. Walton writes in a column on this page that these give-away programs cost the government about $522 billion a year, as of two years ago when the latest count was available. That’s enough, he notes, to simply hand over $15,000 each to every man, woman and child below the federal poverty level.

Americans by and large are generous when it comes to government money. Many of them don’t see it as belonging to the taxpayers who earned it, but as a great pool of manna.

None of us want deserving people to go hungry, to be without medical care or to be cold in the winter, and Walton notes that private charitable giving adds $242 billion a year to what the government hands out to the poor.

Walton’s column brings to mind another idea for feeding the hungry. It would save billions in food costs and more billions in administrative costs. And would provide even greater assurance that no American had to go hungry.

Let’s call it Feed the Hungry.

Feed the Hungry would work simply. The government would aside a store of cheap, nonperishable food, and give it away without administering any test of need. There would be no bureaucracy, and that would save billions.

Food stamps, in the states where they have not been replaced by debit-type cards, are sometimes traded illicitly for liquor, dope or cigarettes. Feed the Hungry would eliminate that problem. Food stamps are sometimes illicitly sold, but nothing like that could happen under Feed the Hungry. How could you trade or sell the right to something that is free anyhow?

A family could simply go to the nearest distribution point and get all it wanted. The free nonperishables could be foods like dried vegetables and rice, which are nutritious but cheap. The government could buy them in large quantities for far less than the cost of food stamps.

The diet could get boring but it would fulfill the purpose of preventing hunger. Charities could supplement it with a variety of foods if they wanted to.

The idea of giving away something without an income test might seem strange to some. But if the goal can be reached more economically and more efficiently, why not consider it?

Published in Editorials on August 17, 2004 10:52 AM