Why It Is Hard to Decide If Government Assistance Should Let You Buy Junk Food

Steven Shepherd, Troy Campbell

Lawmakers in states like Arkansas and Texas want to restrict what the 36 million people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, can purchase with that aid.

Drawing attention to people who use government funds to pay for things like soda or candy is also a common way to justify proposed safety-net spending cuts. Some states impose specific restrictions on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program: for example, barring the use of those benefits for amusement park tickets.

We are a consumer psychologist and a marketing professor who have studied common stereotypes about people who get government benefits paid for with tax dollars. We find that many Americans judge what is appropriate for others to purchase based on their own idiosyncratic preferences and tastes.

This bias affects policy debates over welfare programs, even when they appear to be based in ideology and principle. In essence, we find that when judging these purchases, people think to themselves, “I personally don’t see value in this thing, thus it is wasteful for anyone else to buy it,” or “I value this thing so it’s a good use of money for you to buy it.”

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