The Oz (no link) is touting a campaign by Andrew Forrest to introduce an Australian version of the US “food stamps” system, replacing cash payments with a card that can only be used to buy an approved list of items. This is yet another step in the abandonment of economic rationalism by the political right. I’d be surprised if Forrest could get the support of any economist for this (though the recent performances of the IPA crew give me some pause). Free market advocates, following Milton Friedman, have long sought the replacement of in-kind benefits with cash. To those on the left, even where enthusiasm for markets is more qualified, the conclusion is reinforced by the obvious class warfare involved here. At best, someone like Forrest can be seen as a paternalist, hoping to protect the poor from themselves. But it’s obvious that the Murdoch press, and its target audience, want to punish the poor, not protect them.
As it happens, my slowly-progressing book has a section on just this issue, presenting the standard arguments of Friedman and others as part of the case for why markets work so well (when they do)
To help poor people, give them money
The problem of poverty is huge, in rich and poor countries alike. Around the world, nearly a billion people live in extreme poverty, living on less than $US1.50 a day. Even in the US, on most measures the wealthiest country in the world, the Dept of Agriculture estimates that 14.5 per cent of the population experience food insecurity, defined as being ‘uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.’
Faced with images of the hunger and suffering caused by famines and extreme poverty, a natural and intuitive reaction is to send food. This reaction is often politically appealing in countries that happen to have large stockpiles of food, either because of unforeseen declines in market demand, or because of government policies such as price supports for farmers.
On the other hand, many advocates of development aid dismiss food aid as a short-term ‘band-aid’, and argue that the aim of aid should be to provide the ‘right’ kind of assistance, as measured by subsequent economic growth. Advocates of aid initially focused on economic infrastructure and industrial development, and have more recently turned their attention to health and education.
Which of these approaches is right? Much of the time, neither. While support for health and education has a better track record than food aid, there is a growing body of evidence to say that, in both poor countries and rich ones, the best way to help people is to give them money.
To see why this should be so, ask: What would a desperately poor family do with some extra money? They might use to stave off immediate disaster, buying urgently needed food or medical attention for sick children.
On they other hand, they could put the towards school fees for the children, or save up a piece of capital like a sewing machine or mobile phone that would increase the family’s earning power.
So, the poor family is faced with the reality of opportunity cost. Improved living standards in the future come at the cost of present suffering, perhaps even starvation and death. Whether or not their judgements are the same as we would make, they are surely in the best possible position to make them.
Experimental evidence supports this conclusion
Exactly the same points apply in rich countries. Giving poor people assistance in kind, such as food stamps and subsidised housing, has a lot of political appeal. Not only does it meet an apparent need, but it appears to reduce the chance that the recipients will waste their extra income on luxuries, or on alcohol and tobacco. In addition, as in the case of the US food stamps program, it may also be possible to form a political coalition with producer interests, in this case the farm lobby.
Thinking in terms of opportunity cost, however, we can see that aid in kind almost inevitably results in waste. The opportunity cost of subsidised housing is the low rent paid for the house, while the opportunity cost of moving usually includes going to the back of the line. So having secured subsidised housing, people will stay there even if the house no longer suits their needs, because it is too big, too small, or far away from a new job.
The same kinds of problems come up with food stamps. Families poor enough to get food stamps face all kinds of problems. They might, for example, be faced with eviction if they don’t make a rent payment, or with a need for urgent medical or dental care.
Most of the time food stamps cover only part of a family’s food budget, so they are really just like cash. Families can meet some of their food bills with stamps, then use the money they save to meet other needs. The opportunity cost of spending more on food is the alternative that can’t be afforded.
But it’s precisely when people need money most, to the point where they are prepared to live on a restricted diet, that the limits of food stamps start to bite. If poor families were given money, they could choose to pay the rent bill even if it meant living on rice and beans. That’s a hard choice, but it might be the best one available.
Unsurprisingly, then, poor people often try to change some of their food stamps for money. This is denounced as ‘fraud’ and used as a reason for cutting food stamps even further.
It is market prices that determine the opportunity costs of goods and services for individuals and families. So, when people choose how to spend additional money, the opportunity cost of one choice is the alternative that could be bought for the same amount.
The idea that poor people don’t understand this is patronising and wrong. The tighter are the constraints on your budget, the more important it is to pay attention to them. Poor people often have less access to markets of all kinds, including supermarkets basic financial markets such as bank accounts and face complex and variable prices as a result. Nevertheless, many of them manage to find highly creative ways of stretching a limited budget to meet their needs. Additional constraints, in the form of payments that can only be spent in particular places and on particular goods, are the last thing they need.