Debate in San Diego heated up over legislation passed by the California State Assembly when a scathing editorial by Ruben Navarrette of the Union-Tribune criticized the legislation, which would require local farmers markets to accept EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), for fostering dependency and burdening small businesses. He goes further, calling into question the wisdom of providing food stamps at all. While the proposed bill must still pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in order to become law, San Diego locals for and against the bill have weighed in loudly.
Supporters of the legislation argue that requiring farmers markets to accept food stamps gives the poor access to nutritious, affordable produce that is not readily available to them otherwise. Contrary to the assertions of Mr. Navarrette that low-income people can get produce from mainstream grocery store chains, they claim that low-income neighborhoods contain fewer convenient sources of relatively inexpensive produce, especially locally grown food. Proponents also suggest that improving access to wholesome foods for low-income residents could reduce health care costs. On the economic front, supporters point out that food stamps generate income for local farmers markets and, according to Michelle Zive of the Network for a Healthy California, every $5 of food stamps spent generates $9.20 for the economy as a whole. In addition, far from burdening small businesses, requiring EBT acceptance facilitates access to new customers and, under the terms proposed in the bill, the farmers market management does not necessarily have to eat the cost of card reader installation.
This last point deserves special attention. Originally, the first version of the bill mandated that farmers markets accept EBT cards, essentially passing on the cost of installing EBT card readers to the local market managers. When this provoked opposition from farmers and market managers, a new version of the bill was negotiated that resolved this problem. Farmers markets would still be required to accept food stamps within a year and a half, but they would not have to incur the cost. If the business does not want to buy the machine, the state will pay for it, says Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno. In addition, the bill encourages third parties, non-profits, and community-based organizations to partner with farmers markets to operate the new technology to limit operation costs. For example, community volunteers presently operate EBT machines at the City Heights farmers market here in San Diego County.
This effectively eliminates the grounds for objection based upon the expense to small businesses; however, some opponents of the measure, like Mr. Navarrette, take issue not only with acceptance of food stamps at farmers markets, but also the provision of food stamps generally.
While there’s no denying that entitlement programs permit the possibility that some low-income Americans will come to rely on such programs, the majority of Americans have overwhelming expressed their willingness to accept this risk in order to establish a social safety net that provides a minimum standard of living for the poor. All Americans would rather no one abuse programs like food stamps, but they nonetheless agree to endure the misbehavior of the few to assist the many parents and children who do not end up in poverty by choice. For most Americans, this tradeoff seems worth it.
Mr. Navarrette is right that some people exploit the system and essentially steal from taxpaying Americans, but he is wrong about letting the exploiters discourage the public from feeding those that use the help they get as intended. He is wrong that we ought to let the shameless shame us into withdrawing support from Americans who want to build a better future for themselves and their families. True, there are other ways to give help. Charities and non-profits do such work. But the American people, in their characteristic generosity, have not stopped there. They have set the bar a little higher. It’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to love this country.