The Justice of Restricting Welfare Spending

This week, the Boston Herald revealed that Massachusetts welfare recipients have absolutely no restrictions on what they spend their government aid on:

Bay State welfare recipients can play the slots, pick up a six-pack of beer or nab a flat-screen plasma TV under loosey-goosey Bay State restrictions that allow those on the dole to treat taxpayers’ wallets as their own personal ATM.

Recipients of the Department of Transitional Assistance programs get Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work like regular debit cards, allowing them to withdraw cash from ATMs and use it for whatever they want – all with scant oversight by the state.

Two days before the Herald revealed this, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought federal permission to restrict the almost 2 million New York City food stamp recipients from using government-sponsored food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages. Bloomberg’s motivation is part of an overall anti-obesity campaign after a failed attempt to impose a “fat tax” on sodas (a move which everydaythomist supports). According to the NYTimes,

Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a more equitable approach might be to use educational campaigns to dissuade food-stamp users from buying sugared drinks.

“The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” Mr. Hacker said. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.”

The fear of stigmatizing welfare and food stamp recipients is doubtless one of the reasons that Massachusetts and other states place no limitations on how government aid may be spent (the Herald also revealed that California welfare recipients spent $1.8 million in government aid on casinos). However, Bloomberg’s effort to restrict food stamp expenditure on sodas (which have no nutritional value) reveals that placing restrictions on how food stamps may be used can also be an act of justice.

Aquinas sees an important role for human laws in society, but his understanding of the role of law is contextualized within his understanding of virtue:

Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. Thus we observe that man is helped by industry in his necessities, for instance, in food and clothing. Certain beginnings of these he has from nature, viz. his reason and his hands; but he has not the full complement, as other animals have, to whom nature has given sufficiency of clothing and food. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at theperfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did fromfear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws (I-II, Q. 95, art.1)

This is a long quote but it essentially means that the primary purpose of law is to restrain people from those vicious acts they are inclined to commit which prevent them from developing the virtue necessary to live a good life. Human law is rooted in the natural law, but, unlike the natural law, human law is not universal, but varies from group to group: “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people” (I-II, Q. 95, art. 2, ad. 3). Moreover, citing Isidore, Aquinas affirms that human law should be “just, possible to nature, according to the customs of the country, and adapted to place and time” in order to foster discipline (I-II, Q. 95, art. 3, c.).

With this in mind, we can look at restricting welfare expenditure as an appropriate use of human law. Those who are on welfare and food stamps are, for various reasons (many of them good ones) dependent on the government in order to manage economically. Ideally, the goal (or telos) of welfare legislation is to allow economically disadvantaged individuals to flourish through the development of virtue. Unrestricted welfare aid may seem merciful in that it strives to protect such individuals from discrimination, but it also fails to provide the restrictions necessary for the development of virtue. By restricting food stamp and welfare expenditure for items like cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, and, yes, even sodas, the poor are taught through coercive legal measures, how to act in such ways that are conducive to the development of the virtues necessary to flourish, virtues like moderation in consumption, prudence in purchasing, and health in eating.

This may seem paternalistic and discriminatory, and, in a way, it is. But paternalism and discrimination are not necessarily counterproductive to the goals of justice, at least from a Thomistic perspective. Justice demands that each is given what is due to him or her, and if we are going to say that justice demands government expenditure for welfare and food stamps (which I think it does), then it is also perfectly reasonable and just to place restrictions on how such aid may be used in order to accomplish the just goals which justify its very existence. When people use welfare money on lottery tickets and cigarettes and alcohol, they are not becoming more virtuous; they are becoming dependent on nicotine, potentially abusive of alcohol, imprudent consumers, and more dependent on the government for their subsistence.

Restricting food stamp expenditure on soda may seem a step too far. However, the goal (telos) of food stamp money is to ensure that poorer individuals and families have access to the nutrition necessary to flourish. Soda is completely contrary to this telos. Sodas provide no nutritional value, and worse, contribute to obesity-related health problems that tax the healthcare system and endanger lives. Bloomberg’s proposal is discrimination, but it is a just discrimination which will hopefully receive the support the “fat tax” on sodas failed to get.


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