Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Food Stamps, Public Grocery Stores and Schools...

Why don't we have public grocery stores where poor people can get food for free?

There are private food banks that give food to needy people, but no network of government-run grocery stores. Instead, we have the Food Stamps program, which gives something like $35 billion of food vouchers to low-income people.

What if we replaced Food Stamps with a nationwide network of government grocery stores? Grocery stores make about 6% profit on the stuff they sell; that's two billion dollars of Food Stamps profit we could save if we had all the poor people shop at government-run grocery stores!

Umm, yeah. Does anybody out there really believe that:
1. A government-run grocery store would be anywhere near as efficient as competing, private grocery stores?
2. That, given a choice, anybody would prefer to shop at a government-run grocery store?

We do have government-run grocery stores, by the way-- military base commissaries, where military families can get name-brand groceries less expensively than at regular grocery stores. But according to a 1997 congressional budget office report:
Active-duty families in the United States buy about 40 percent of their groceries in stores other than commissaries, which is evidence that the benefits of commissary shopping cannot be measured simply by savings on grocery bills.
Or, in other words, if you PAY people to shop at a government grocery store by subsidizing prices, they'll still decide to shop somewhere else 40% of the time. I haven't done the math, but I bet the Defense Commissary Agency is less efficient than private grocery stores; I bet they spends more than 6 cents per dollar in revenue running their stores.

Anyway, I'm pretty darn certain that it would be a bad idea to get the government more involved in the grocery store business.

Which makes me wonder: why is the government so dominant in the primary-school-education business? And why, if our food voucher program (food stamps) works so well, are so many people so vehemently opposed to education vouchers?

I think public education is a very, very good idea. Giving every child an equal opportunity to a great education is just simply the right thing to do (and benefits us all in the long run).

But I'm not such a big fan of the idea of public schools; despite spending ever-larger amounts of money, public schools in this country continue to do a mediocre job of educating our kids. IQ scores were up in the 80's and 90's, but test scores weren't-- what's up with that?

Of course, private schools haven't done a whole lot better than the government-run schools in improving student performance, but at least they have improved. If we had more private schools there's every reason to believe that the increased competition would increase quality.

The only argument for government-run schools that almost makes sense to me is that we need public schools because a system of private schools would fragment our society. If we're not mostly all taught the same stuff we'll grow up to be terrorists (or socialists or fascists or Baptists... or whatever you happen to find scary).

I don't know how to reconcile that argument with all the talk about the value of diversity. I like the fact that I can shop at the big, everything-to-everybody supermarket or shop at a little Asian market that has all sorts of interesting food that I don't know how to cook or buy a farm share and support a local farm.

Imagine if we paid for food like we pay for education. We'd all pay taxes, and then we'd all be able to get an amount and type of food, for "free", with the amount and type carefully determined by expert local and federal bureaucrats (oh, and with rigorous testing to ensure quality-- No Chicken Left Behind...), from public grocery stores. If we weren't happy with the quality or amount of food we got, and we were rich enough, then we could pay extra to private grocery stores or restaurants.

Does anybody out there believe we'd be better off in such a system? Why should paying for education be fundamentally different from paying for food?

1 comment:

Paul G. Silva said...

Wow, what an easy to understand and powerful way of telling this story. Thanks!