Card-Swipe Dependency

Card-Swipe Dependency

By Ruben Navarrette - February 28, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- At the intersection of the nanny state and the welfare state is a bill in the California Legislature that would make it easier for food stamp recipients to buy fruits and vegetables.

The idea is part nanny because government, having fulfilled its other responsibilities, has resolved to cut the fat by battling obesity.

And part welfare because our society continues to unintentionally harm the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed by assuring them that the world owes them a living. They're also entitled to not feel embarrassed for being on public assistance, and thus to remove traces of stigma, are now given electronic cards rather than stamps to make their purchases.

The bill would require the nearly 650 farmers markets throughout California to accept food stamp cards by 2012, either by installing an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system or by allowing a third-party organization to set up and operate an EBT system.

Assemblyman Juan Arambula, an independent from Central California's San Joaquin Valley, proposed the legislation last year to better serve the growing number of Californians using food stamps and to encourage healthy eating. I've known Arambula for 25 years. He's a decent man, and he means well. But you have to look at the big picture, and this issue is more complicated than it seems.

One complication is the fact that many farmers markets are cash-only businesses that operate in fields, sheds or parking lots that lack electricity. There are wireless card readers that could be used, but they don't come cheap. The units can cost as much as $1,000.

And you wonder where California got its reputation for burdening businesses to the point where they jump the state line and flee to Nevada, Arizona, Colorado or Texas? Now you know.

Of course, it's not just California. According to The Associated Press, lawmakers in Texas, Vermont, Indiana and other states have also proposed laws to make it easier for farmers markets to obtain and use these EBT machines in order to accept food stamps.

Sorry, I lost my place. Why are we going to all this trouble again? Oh yes, so people who receive food stamps can shop at farmers markets alongside other people who work to support their families, earn salaries, and buy produce with hard-earned cash. After all, we are told by the bill's supporters, having a lower income shouldn't automatically lead to obesity and other health problems tied to poor nutrition.

Agreed. But does this mean that there are no fruits and vegetables to be found at the more than 20,000 supermarkets and grocery stores in California, most of which do take food stamps? No, in most cases, there are produce aisles in those places. It's just that, we are told, the fruits and vegetables aren't always as fresh as what you find at farmers markets.

I see. And this is an inconvenience for food stamp recipients? As much as it is an inconvenience for the rest of us to feed not only our own children but -- through the country's confiscatory tax system -- someone else's?

Not that I'm against feeding children. It's a worthy cause. It's just that I would hope that, in a perfect world, this responsibility would fall on the shoulders of those children's parents and not the rest of society. I would also hope that, when parents drop the ball, we don't encourage this conduct by picking up the slack.

If people in California or another state are so put off by not being able to shop at farmers markets, they might decide that they don't like being on food stamps after all.

Good. Glad to hear it. You're not supposed to like it. In fact, you're supposed to dislike being on any form of public assistance so much that you can't wait to get off. That way the system is temporary, and not something handed down from one generation to another. We made a mistake when we tried to remove the stigma from programs like this, and now we're compounding that mistake by continually making it easier and more comfortable for people to become a permanent ward of the state.

In these dire economic times, many Californians worry about losing their jobs, homes or health insurance. But, if we confuse spreading compassion with fostering dependency, we should also be careful not to lose something that is just as important: our values.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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