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Whoopie Pies, Capital Hill and fiscal integrity

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By Henry Downes

No one likes being told how to spend his or her money. Americans are an especially individualistic lot and this libertarian streak runs through most of us, regardless of whatever specific political sympathies we might have. It is no surprise that waves were made when a Massachusetts baker refused to accept food stamps in exchange for her specialty "whoopie pies" at a farmers' market this month. The baker, Andrea Taber of Walpole, Mass., told the Boston Herald that "[she didn't] think American taxpayers should be footing the bill for people's pie purchases."

The farmers' market, for their part, had previously stated that it was their unwritten policy to always accept the food stamps - or 'EBT cards', as they are known. Donna Ingemanson, head of the market, expressed her belief that "people that were on food stamps a lot of times don't have healthy choices. What better chance to buy healthy foods than at a farmers' market?"

This sounds like a relatively reasonable and well-thought-out initiative on its part. America is infamous (and unique) as a land with fat and poor people, in part because many of the cheapest culinary options are fast foods or other junk foods. What's so wrong with Mrs. Ingemanson and her market trying to make healthy eating more affordable for the masses?

Nothing, in theory. In reality, however, some EBT users were consistently walking past the fresh corn and tomato stands, seeking out Mrs. Taber's chocolate whoopie pies instead. Mrs. Taber apparently felt that this was a gross departure from the initial mission of the farmers' market initiative and the EBT program in general, so she took a stand against what she viewed as an injustice- and lost out on some valuable profits in the process.

Whether or not you agree with the principles of income redistribution in general or consider "welfare abuse" a problem, one must acknowledge what these EBT food stamps actually are: taxpayer dollars. When someone gives you their money to spend for an express purpose - in this case, the funding of a healthy and balanced diet for low-income families - it seems reasonable that they'd have some sort of say in how that money is spent. In this light, Mrs. Taber's actions seem justified.

Aren't the concerns raised by Mrs. Taber reflective in many ways of the concerns voiced by Americans about wasteful overspending in Washington today? The federal government owns no money in any real sense. It simply borrows our money and spends it with the understanding that they are contractually (and electorally) obligated to provide for the general welfare. When we as citizens and taxpayers begin to see a disconnect between federal spending and the general welfare (ahem, Iraq War), we usually get pretty upset about it. Just as we don't condone fiscal irresponsibility in government, Mrs. Taber took a similar stand in not allowing Massachusetts taxpayers to fund people's dessert cravings.

Constitutionally and morally speaking, all the decision-making leverage is accorded to the person who financially subsidizes the choices of others: When someone hands you a drink for free, you don't send it back and ask for ice. You shut up and drink it regardless of how bad you'd really like some ice. While there are ethical limits in telling these low-income groups how to spend their EBT cards, this case is clearly not one of those exceptions.

The whoopie pie fiasco would be a non-issue if the EBT users were making choices consistent with the originally-stated mission of the market. Since they weren't holding up their end of the bargain in making healthy food choices for their families, why should taxpayers be obligated to continue funding their lifestyle?

If you disapprove of income redistribution and welfare programs in general, the way low-income groups spend their food stamps is probably an irrelevant point. If, however, you do support food-stamp welfare programs in principle, you still must admit that purchasing whoopie pies is a pretty gross distortion of the intended objectives set out by the government when they created the EBT program and of the initial mission of the famers' market in allowing EBT cards to be used.

This isn't really about baked desserts, though. It's about responsibility. It's about dignity. How can we expect our elected officials to be accountable for the choices they make with our taxpayer money if we as citizens can't even hold ourselves accountable for the actions we take with money that's essentially been gifted to us? I, for one, applaud Mrs. Taber for her principled defense of fiscal integrity.