Food stamps and crime

We find that staggering SNAP benefits throughout the month leads to a 32 percent decrease in grocery store theft and reduces monthly cyclicity in grocery store crimes.

That is by Jillian B. Carr and Analisa Packham (pdf), via Alexander Berger.


Food stamps are high velocity.

Most commentary I've seen about this has simply assumed that this is the result of better consumption smoothing but a friend of mine suggested an alternate interpretation. Chicago previously was distributing all the food stamps to everyone on the same day of the month: this creates a Schelling point towards the end for shoplifters to coordinate around, and it is (he suggests) a lot easier to get away with theft when a lot of other people are doing it too. In his state the distribution date is staggered between different recipients.

That's not a bad suggestion-- but if you read the paper, you'll see that in addition to Illinois the paper also discusses Indiana, where the distribution date is staggered between different recipients based on last name. They find a similar effect of people shoplifting more in the last week (based on the shoplifter arrest records having last names).

It's a pretty staggering effect. I expected some, but this is quite large. It's too bad that some attempts to stagger other benefits (EITC) haven't worked well in practice, but are worth considering.

Clever theory. Wouldn't there be qualitative evidence of this if it were true?

Is theft volume really so high volume as to create a "safety in numbers" effect? So high volume that shoplifters are coordinating around the expectation of multiple other shoplifters being in the same store at the same time? Count me skeptical.

I guess the one way this works is if nabbing one shoplifter keeps security staff indisposed for a long period, creating large "shoplifting windows".

Is there informal exchange of foodstamps? I.e. I borrow some from you, and give them back when I get a fresh allocation? That might reduce crime in a scattered distribution scheme.

I'm skeptical too. I'm envisioning some type of monthly 'purge' where dozens of shoplifters descend upon the grocery store in an orgy of theft. Really? Store owners just let this happen every month? If shoplifters are so coordinated why not simply smooth out their food stamp payments?

There's a skill set thing going on here. You eat every day but if you get paid once a month you must coordinate those two things....either buy a month's worth of food once a month or buy your food one day at a time so the two are aligned. Those who are bad at that skill at are likely to run into trouble and be desperate in between payments.

I'm surprised. The typical food stamp recipient is just someone down on their luck for a short time, who's trying to prudently manage a budget. There's no reason why they'd be "paycheck to paycheck" and doing *all* their purchases the moment they get their new disbursal.

It does seem to undermine the proposition that "food insecurity is a myth."

At the same time, it also undermines the proposition that "the money in SNAP is too low for people to live on," since they're able to do so without shoplifting if the money is doled out in a more staggered fashion.

So while it implies that food insecurity happens, it also implies that a large portion of that is the fault of people on SNAP for being poor at planning.

That is one mechanism. Another is that friends and relatives coordinate more easily on the staggered schedule.

Funny how our minds went in anti- and pro- social directions!

This coordination aspect is what my first thought was, too.

I live in a low income area, and I see lots and lots of food stamp usage at a discount grocery store nearby. Some people do shop sporadically, but others have heaping full carts on food stamp day.

Plenty of Congressional districts where more than 20% of the population are on SNAP at any time. Hard to believe that's all short term

apostrophe's cannot be catastrophic in their misuse. Territory gave Putin his ability to make is pupils widen. Taxpayers and bob dylans afrikans and akrons tom sawyers and jailbirds,

snowden is fighting for Ainsley adams and chirico

Isn't this result anti-libertarian?

In other words, it suggests the state really can know better than you* what's best for you, because the state is forcing you to be more efficient with your food purchases.

*Where 'you' means some subset including people on food stamps.

Your asterisk is very important, because it also somewhat boosts the theory of poverty and desert, which is at least Bryan Caplan-style libertarian (and also popular among conservatives and populists of all stripes.)

You mean, that the government should actively intervene in people's lives as part of the welfare state, in order to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor? Milton Friedman will be rolling over in his grave. That *does* sound like an anti-libertarian position to me.

This old thread is interesting both for hard data and untethered assertions:

As Bob Knaus points out, food assistance is quite structured (down to an unreasonable bias against white rice and dried beans? California)

Let em starve.

Maybe people prefer the gorging + shoplifting option, but if they can't gorge then there's a new equilibrium where they don't want to take the risk of shopliftng?

Welfare recipients are a highly self-selected group. "Treat adults like adults" is a good rule of thumb, but when you're giving someone an allowance, that ship has already sailed.

I suspect similar results would hold if you moved slightly up the proverbial economic food chain. Many employers tout weekly, rather than biweekly, checks as an advantage, and it's probably for much the same reason.

Just another day for a cuck like you!

Yes a cuck like me and a cuck like you!

Yes we're both cucks but you got slapped till you were black and blue

Cucks like us can get along while a Blackman whips out his schlong.

wouldn't you like to be a cuck too ?

Consumption jitter and the Walmart linen bawls are related, both the result of congestion. The queues are not time stationary, announced price fixing cause brawls as we get time plotting. Dump time everywhere, even in loans, and congestion problems reduce.

Are you suggesting people steal shit because they don't want to wait in line?

This happens literally every day, in every city in America.

Someone's not thinking on the margin. This may not be the right blog for you.

Joking aside, yes there are thousands of people every day in the US who are essentially indifferent between stealing and purchasing. As the cost to purchasing goes up....

Is everyone here aware that most retail chains have stopped attempting to prevent shoplifting from leaving the store?

Basically, they won't touch the shoplifter.

So, yeah, if you know that you won't face many consequences, why not?

In California unless you steal more than $600 its not even a felony, so cops could care less.

Hmmmm....haven't heard that. In my town Walmart is the top police call lication. Shoplifting the #1 crime.

Yes, this was much in the news awhile back. Some town (MO?) even went so far as to sue Walmart for being an attractive 24/7 nuisance. The cops were essentially officing there.

This was because Walmart (at least as of that writing) employed no security, either in its stores or parking lots. Zero deterrence. If you've been in a Wal-mart - try to imagine the people you've seen working there, caring enough, or having the fitness or alertness, to notice or run after a shoplifter.

The media contrasted it with Target, which does employ security, apparently.

Another hypothesis is that people on food stamps are impulsive and spend all their food stamps early, so, you have to pace them by giving them just a little of what the want.

Are you proposing that humans not on food stamps are not impulsive?

It strikes me that impulsivity could be quite similar, but one group has more ready cash to order a large pizza than the other.

Of course that isn't quite so good, if the goal is to turn a need into a morality play.

Impulse control and economic success are highly correlated. See: "Marshmallow test"

I hedged with "similar" but I still think it is important to note that that there are few paragons anywhere on the human scale.

Only lonely old maids that nobody wants like me.

Poor people may be more impulsive than average, but even if they're not, a lack of impulse control only makes matters more difficult. And the morality play is precisely to make some people obligated to pay for other people's stuff, and if you have the temerity to raise any questions you're mean-spirited.

Terrible how humpback whales have been infected by liberal politics.

Or .. a great variety of altruistic tendencies have been found, by nature, to be pro-adaptive.

Culling the weak is also found in nature. So what is the lesson we are supposed to draw from nature (even assuming that we should be drawing any such lessons): should such people be culled as brutally as nature does it or should such people be helped with their "needs" (calling something a need is part of your morality play) and via government coercion no less?

I personally never feel the impulse to cull the weak. Do you?

On the other hand I do feel empathy which leads me to pro-social policy? Do you ever feel empathy?

So you selectively pick from brute nature the lesson you wish to promote. Not wishing to cull the weak is largely a cultural artifact that requires a different justification and one that take into account other considerations.

So, "we can't have nice things" because they *are* good?

A novel politics.

Did you ever stop to think that maybe humpback whales have little to nothing to do with the problem at hand? First of all, I'm sure plenty of us have felt the urge to do what animals do- anything to survive and achieve status. Putting nature on a pedestal is an incredibly naive thing to do. Meerkats are cute, right? They also invade nearby meerkat homes and murder their babies. If a high-ranking member becomes injured, a sister or brother may kill that meerkat to take over their position. These are not experiences wholly outside the human experience, nor are they to be emulated. Moreover, an altruistic act undertaken voluntarily is rather differently from taking someone else's property by force like Robin Hood and giving it to people you find more deserving.

"I personally never feel the impulse to cull the weak. "

I don't want to open up a can of worms, but one could argue abortion is precisely that. At the very least, it's highly eugenic.

Yes, abortion is an example. Exposure of infants used to be common too.

No doubt. I fail to see why every significant benefit doesn't come with some strings attached.

Yes indeed they are impulsive, they are children. Practically the only people who can get food stamps over a longer period of time are women with small children. After they've been without the last week of the month they want chips and junk food like any other kids do. Food stamps don't go very far, sadly.

I was wondering aloud to a colleague "what will shoplifters do when Amazon finally kills retail?" whereupon he advised that he has all his online purchases delivered to the office because following the FedEx trucks and grabbing packages left on doorsteps is already a big thing in Houston.

It's potluck for the evolved shoplifters though. What strategies should they pursue to maximize utility?

It's not going to kill retail.

True, Sears is doing just fine.

Also cell phones are a niche market.

Maybe it won't finish it off, but retail will continue to decline. Hard to compete on price and efficiency. But someone will need something immediately, and that's a tough logistics problem to solve. But that's also not a huge business compared to 1970s retail.

Internet/mail order fraud is probably the same rate or more than shoplifting but is almost impossible to stop, let alone prosecute. Anyone could steal $50-100 from a major online retailer today without much risk by just claiming an order didn't arrive. Someday, I'd like to see consumers rated based on return rate, damaged goods, and claims that an item wasn't received. The sample size for most people would be so huge that luck would play very little role in most scores over the long run.

Even (and especially!) in the internet era, the economy relies on most people being fairly honest.

Strongly supports recipients having very high time preference and antisocial traits.

Yes. Does the program encourage such?

Yes, of course.

Adam Smith suggests why the grocer sweeps the front of his store and is friendly to all folks: he needs customers.

Now, remove the need for customers. Yeah, it makes most people far more likely to be assh*les.

Do you really think if we had zero welfare and starvation were possible, these doofuses would be all tatted up and fighting in the parking lot?

(OK, they'd still do that but only on Saturday night!)

BTW, this applies to the super rich. There's a reason we think of the super rich as eccentrics. they can afford to be.

Who do you people think get food stamps? Its all kids and it has been for 20 years. There isn't some horde of anti social grown men and women wolfing down steaks on the first of the month.

Adults get food stamps, too. Mothers. People who claim disability.
If you just lie on the form, that can work as well.

These programs didn't grow during the recession because birth rates went up.

Just looked it up and less than half of households on food stamps have children in them. Though, many of those will have multiple children in them.

Children don't get food stamps at all. Maybe their parents do. Maybe their parents lock their refrigerators. It's been known to happen.

I call things like this "created covariance in everything".

Yes everything given to the poor including EITC should be given weekly for now, until we get to daily. I recently saw a study that many children in the USA go hungry at the end of the month because their parents don't budget for the end of the month.

It's not the 1930s. Are soup kitchens, churches, and food banks actually running out of food?

I find this incredibly hard to believe, that free food for the poor is hard to come by.

Especially given the obesity rate...

Among formerly-rural blacks and whites, I think there are people who don't know how to cook a pot of beans anymore. But if Latinos in the US forget how to live on beans and rice, it will be a sign that America has become a net force for ill.


This study is a good example of "small steps towards a much better world."

How much is this because you purchase products you can re-sell for drugs or other leisure activities?

and / or you buy things you can barter with.

Supposedly people in Appalachia use cases of pepsi as a second currency. So, yeah, go in on the first day possible, convert your currency from drug-less to drug-friendly and then when you're hungry later, shoplift.

Note, this doesn't have to be a huge percent of people on EBT in order to move the shoplifting numbers. Most people don't shoplift.

I love baseless accusations which demean my fellow Americans. More please!

"The lines are a dozen cars deep outside some Kentucky banks in the middle of the night. Police in a handful of cities say when those crowds gather on the first of the month, crime rates go up. WKYT watched as more than two dozen cars lined up at the three banks on Highway 25 in Barbourville at 1 a.m. Each driver swiped at least one Direct Express card into the ATM.....In Kentucky, more than 900,000 people get government assistance, that's about 21 percent of our state. That does not include people on temporary state assistance, like K-TAP or TANF." ---

What would feminist economics advocate? Compassion with a dose of pragmatism. Portioning and staggering benefits would be beneficial to communities already struggling with high occupancy in local jails, overdoses, and drug related crime.

Why take the risk of shoplifting when SNAP does it for you?

Comments for this post are closed