The Positive Economics of Food Stamps

04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight, thank God it's them instead of you

-- Band Aid

Several years ago, my sister, Theresa, lost her white collar job when the large company she worked for shut down.

Nine months unemployed, she found a job from midnight to 8 am, unloading trucks at a loading dock.

Along the way she applied for public assistance and was given $11 in food stamps.

She stopped at a grocery after a long night of work. Exhausted, she unloaded her cart slowly, with the food stamps on the counter.

The guy behind her said, "Excuse me, could you hurry up? SOME of us have to go to work."

Theresa got right in his face. She said, "Listen asshole. Do you know what they give you when you are unemployed for 9 months? $11 in food stamps."

She looked at him and said. "Maybe I shouldn't work. Maybe I just should marry some lucky son of a ____ like you, sit home and eat bon bons."

The jerk articulated a commonly held myth. He picked the wrong person to articulate it to.

There has long been a stigma against food stamp users. Maybe it's time we get over it.

I hadn't thought about food stamps in years until I saw an article in the Christian Science Monitor. It said that every tax dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.73 for the economy.

You can't say that about the tax dollars spent on Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

The positive economic impact makes sense.

Grocery stores sell food and employ people. Truckers bring food to stores and employ people. Businesses make, package, and can food. They employ people too. Farmers grow food and raise animals. They employ lots of people too.

Along the way, those industries buy equipment, insurance, services and advertising. They employ lots of people too.

For all of the initial hype about Wall Street money trickling down to Main Street, it never happened. Food stamps, however, will be spent on Main Street and will be spent more wisely.

You can't use food stamps to buy a private jet.

For many people, there is a horrible stigma about receiving food stamps. It's seen as the ultimate sign of failure.

Wall Street investment bankers don't have hang-ups about taking taxpayer dollars. But unemployed factory workers do. I've watched grown men cry when they were forced to go on food stamps.

I've also seen how the food stamp program can be horribly abused. I understand how the stereotype about food stamp users gets perpetrated.

In high school, I worked in a corner grocery that was a poorly disguised front for a bookmaking operation. (You can read about it my book, Son of a Son of a Gambler.)

Because illegal activity was ongoing in the back, the grocery store in front followed the absolute letter and spirit of the food stamp laws.

We were one of the only small groceries in town that did not trade food stamps for cigarettes and beer. Many customers gamed the system. They would buy a penny piece of candy and get 99 cents in change -- several times a day.

Some would buy the candy, take the change and then turn around and buy a pack of cigarettes.

Some of my food stamp customers could have been running Wall Street firms. They were just as creative in spending taxpayer dollars.

Even then, I resented the waste. I don't want tax dollars wasted by Wall Street, Washington or anyone else.

It's been over 30 years since I was around food stamps, and better technology has apparently reduced waste, fraud and abuse. The government can track food stamp money better than they can track money going to Wall Street.

Of course, that's not saying much.

No matter how you feel about the possibility for abuse, statistics show food stamps help the economy.

Remember President Bush's $300 billion tax rebate plan in 2008? Everyone got a $300 check. The plan gets forgotten because throwing away $300 billion is a drop in the bucket these days.

The money did nothing to stop a recession, now bordering on a depression.

If we had taken the $300 billion and raised food stamp eligibility, or if we had given $300 in food stamps to everyone, it would have done more to help the economy.

I don't have a dog in the food stamp fight. My sister died two years ago. Her $11 was the only time my family ever received food stamps. Unless life really changes, I'll never use them myself.

I am for a program proven to boost the economy on Main Street.

The next time the jerk who insulted my sister gets in a grocery line, he ought to thank the food stamp users instead of snubbing them.

A program that gives back $1.73 for every dollar spent is a better return than Wall Street is offering.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the founder of McNay Settlement Group in Richmond Kentucky. You can read his award winning syndicated column at or write to him at Don is the author of Son of a Son of a Gambler : Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery.