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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

 

Food Stamps and The Logic

     There have always been discussions about food stamp programs in the political world, but I have found it to be a recurring issue in this particular presidential election. Without getting too much into the moral and economic arguments surrounding food stamps, I think it would be valuable to look at the group action behind food stamps using the logic of collective action.
     It is no secret that food stamp use is statistically on the rise, but what broader concepts could be used to explain this? First, one would have to decide whether or not food stamp users are a group capable of collective action, or capable of rent-seeking. According to Olson's logic, and just by looking at their behavior, I do not believe they are. Based on the sheer number of people using food stamps, there is no way they should be able to mobilize. Sure, if food stamp programs were cut, many people would be upset, but it would be from individual voters, not from some kind of larger organization. I would also expect that most of the people upset about cuts would not be food stamp dependents, but rather philanthropic groups and individuals. Much of the policy surrounding food stamps seems to be the product of ideological ties between individuals rather than some kind of collective action.
    This discussion raises the question: Is the food-stamp program a product of rent-seeking? On the surface, it does not seem like it, simply because it does not seem to benefit one specific group of people over another as a product of a specific group's actions. However, the food stamp program is only open to people with a low income, so it does specify some kind of group. But, as I stated prior, there is strong evidence that these people are a part of a large latent group, and should therefore have no means to mobilize.
    Obviously, there is a supply of rent coming from the government, which benefits a specific group of people. Food stamps would not be around without government, and the demand for food stamps seems to come from individuals, but not a particular group. Perhaps this phenomenon is a product of philanthropic groups, which Olson admits his theory is weaker in explaining. Or maybe the food stamp program is simply a  symbol for government help that has been around for so long that it seems to be fused with government itself, and has only been growing due to the free-rider problem. Whatever the case, I'd imagine it is the same circumstances for most government welfare programs.
    Welfare programs are something I've been thinking about a lot since reading Olson's books. Although I cannot produce a definitive answer, I think it is useful to think about how they might function, and many of the implications can be seen in The Rise and Decline of Nations. If anyone has any other comments or insight on this, I would be interested in reading it!

Resources:
http://www.marketplace.org/topics/wealth-poverty/food-stamps-and-politics-poverty
http://www.marketplace.org/topics/wealth-poverty/binders-big-bird-and-food-stamps
http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10101.html

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