When it comes to public assistance, government paternalism is nothing new. At least 15 states currently have drug testing or screening requirements for applicants and recipients of certain welfare programs. Conservative governors, like Scott Walker, have drawn criticism for attempting to expand drug testing requirements to apply to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would likely violate federal law.

The furor over well-publicized, highly controversial forms of government paternalism like drug testing obscures more banal policies that affect the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans on public assistance. SNAP is one of the most prominent examples, requiring its recipients to negotiate a veritable maze of restrictions in order to shop at the grocery store.

The USDA lays out which food items are and are not eligible to be bought with SNAP benefits. The prohibited products include:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco
  • Any nonfood items, such as:
  • pet foods  
  • soaps, paper products   
  • household supplies
  • Vitamins and medicines
  • Food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods

Some of these restrictions, like not allowing people to buy alcohol or tobacco, seem reasonable enough. Others less so. Household supplies and toiletries are essential goodspeople need hand soap, toilet paper, and other such items to maintain personal hygiene. Vitamins also contribute to people’s health by ensuring that they have sufficient nutrient intake when their diet alone is not enough. Vitamins might not be food in the conventional sense, but it’s difficult to see why purchasing calcium supplements or vitamin D should be considered an abuse of the system.

More absurd still is the ban on hot foods and those that can be eaten in-store. At first glance, this seems like a bizarre, draconian mandate designed to make poor people’s lives harder for no justifiable reason. Presumably, the underlying logic is that foods that are sold hot, or with the purpose of being consumed in-store, are less healthy than groceries you purchase to take home. This is not particularly sound logic. Can anyone honestly claim that frozen hot-pockets or pizza bagels are meaningfully healthier than 7/11’s chicken wings?

The impetus behind this convoluted program design comes from a strange alliance: anti-welfare conservatives who don’t want the poor to waste taxpayers’ money, and humanitarian organizations like the American Cancer Society that want to protect the poor from themselves. As it turns out, the current regulatory regime accomplishes neither of these goals.

At least 70 to 80 percent of SNAP participants use cash in addition to their benefits to pay for food. So if a family spends three percent of its food budget on hot foods and foods that will be eaten in-store, regulating SNAP usage doesn’t actually prevent them from purchasing those foods. The recipients just have to make sure that they pay with their own money rather than their SNAP benefits. The same applies for proposed bans on other unhealthy products like soft drinks.

Adding additional barriers to SNAP usage raises the program’s administrative costs and increases stigma against program participants by suggesting that they can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves. Evidence indicates that this stigma is ill-deserved, as food consumption patterns for SNAP households don’t differ significantly from those of non-SNAP households with similar characteristics.

Some might argue that this only proves low-income families need to improve their diets. But if this is the goal, there are better ways to go about it than ham-fisted regulations that can easily be subverted. A recent pilot project randomly selected SNAP participants to receive an additional 30 cents in benefits for every dollar they spent on certain fruits and vegetables. Participants offered this incentive consumed, on average, nearly 26 percent more of the selected fruits and vegetables than those not selected for the pilot.

It’s hardly surprising that people change their behavior in response to positive incentives. This is an important lesson to keep in mind when designing public policy: if we’re going to paternalize the poor, we should at least do it well. The current SNAP restrictions are failing to make the cut.