No government is enamoured of transparency. But a new report from Michele Simon entitled “Food Stamps: Follow the Money” shows quite how far the USDA needs to go. If you try, for instance, to follow the money in the Farm Bill’s largest program – SNAP, the program that used to be known as Food Stamps – you won’t get very far. The USDA goes out of its way to hide the corporate beneficiaries of its program. Through other information, it’s clear that large supermarkets make a great deal of cash out of selling surplus commodities. It’s also clear that banks make bank by charging fees on the electronic transfer of benefits. But no one knows quite how much. And the USDA isn’t telling.
Government departments have succumbed to pressure for transparency. Today, for instance, I can go to the Pentagon’s website to find out who the Department of Defense is awarding contracts to, and how much they’re paying, but apparently I’m not allowed to know how much WalMart gets from SNAP entitlements. It’s just sad when we know more about who makes our bombs than who feeds our kids.
Some are concerned that disclosing SNAP’s corporate beneficiaries will put pressure on the program. I’m not worried. Consider the Pentagon – they disclose, and they’re not short of cash. Disclosure can, on the contrary, help prevent graft. It’s harder for financial services companies to get away with robbery if there’s daylight. Disclosure can also help a number of states in their moves to improve SNAP, despite the onslaught of corporate lobbying. So, no, I think disclosure’s healthy in a democracy. The reason SNAP is under threat is that some politicians don’t think that a program that helps feed one in seven Americans is worth funding. And that’s a deeper political issue.