The new day: Government intervention at the grocery store | Arkansas Blog

Monday, December 12, 2016

The new day: Government intervention at the grocery store

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2016 at 8:28 AM

GROCERY MONITOR: Rep. Mary Bentley wants to decree what groceries poor people may purchase with food stamps.
  • GROCERY MONITOR: Rep. Mary Bentley wants to decree what groceries poor people may purchase with food stamps.
Yep, I'm back after a couple of weeks in the South Pacific. What can I say? The election wasn't a bad dream. The news I received on the road was a daily reminder.

I chanced to pass Arkansas Democratic Party Chair Vince Insalaco in the Dallas airport last night and we briefly talked about the future for the dwindling minority party in Arkansas.

It's hard to be optimistic. Some bedrock issues — quality public education, good wages and working conditions, environmental protection — should have broad voter appeal. But Donald Trump's victory and his subsequent choices to lead federal agencies critical to issues such as these suggest policy details and even clear potential for negative impact on working class people in flyover land aren't so potent as raw emotional appeals.

A good small example came this weekend with a report that Republican Rep. Mary  Bentley wants to propose legislation — so far not permitted by the federal government — to limit use of "food stamps" to nutritional purchases. No junk food and soda pop for poor folks who use the supplemental nutritional program. David Ramsey mentioned this earlier and the added difficulties it would mean for people who already live in places where it's hard to obtain decent groceries.

A wholly unscientific on-line poll showed support for Bentley's idea. Should subsequent reporting further illustrate the problems with Bentley's idea, I doubt it would sway the significant number who believe the poor unworthy and thus favor punitive components to assistance programs — required co-payments and work for health care; no cookies for food stamp recipients.

Republicans typically deplore government intervention — think environmental and workplace rules, for example. But there are exceptions: To limit women's medical rights, oppress sexual minorities, limit ballot access or tell poor people what they should eat.

Bentley claims an interest in discouraging obesity — as if only poor people are overweight and as if food stamps are the only government subsidy given fat people. Private health insurance enjoys a huge income tax break for all, rich and poor, for example. Why not make a government-approved grocery purchase a requirement for continuing to be allowed to deduct insurance cost from taxable income?

Then there's the hypocrisy on government regulation. Think of the cost of developing and maintaining a list of acceptable purchases under the supplemental nutrition program. And think of the cost to merchants of setting up accounting systems to separate these items at checkout between those allowed to eat what they want and the poor folks (who pay some of the cost of their food) whose purchases will be guided by Big Brother.

And where will the meddling stop? Will the poor be allowed to purchase only turkey hindquarters, not more expensive breast meat? Only red delicious apples and not the expensive honey crisps? Store-brand baked beans and no Van Camp's?

The retail industry and the soft drink industry can be expected to work against this idea for obvious reasons. But their economic self-interest isn't the core reason why this is a bad idea.

Want to address obesity? Pass a Big Gulp law to ban sale of massive soft drinks — to everyone, not just poor people. You can imagine what Mary Bentley would say about THAT kind of government intervention in the free market.

A reminder about who Mary Bentley is. She's the state legislator who threatened funding of the Game and Fish Commission after a game warden came along when a federal officer cited her husband for violating national forest rules on baiting wildlife and ATV use.

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