Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When Time is Money, Cash Assistance Only Does So Much

I'm a little ashamed of it, but I subscribed to Blue Apron.  I love cooking, and I don't have a job, but planning meals stresses me out a lot.  I grew up in a home with one income-earner, where cooking food at home made an enormous difference in the household budget.  When I was little, my family relied on food stamps from time to time, and my parents made it work.  It takes a lot of discipline and patience to feed a family on a budget.

One of the meals I made a while ago

I don't always have that discipline and patience (thus the shame), so I figured I'd give this program a shot.  It turns out it's really fun!  (It feels like being on a cooking show, with all the perfectly-portioned ingredients.)  It distills all of the things that are fun about cooking - new ingredients, new recipes, new techniques - and lets some schmuck deal with the shopping and menu planning.

This is how we should do food stamps and WIC.  The current system of cash assistance (if you can get access) feels slightly punitive and has almost no room for error, but Blue Apron is empowering.  You can come home from work, open a box, cook for a half hour, and then a healthy dinner is on the table.  No more low-blood-sugar panics in the grocery store, and you pick up recipes and skills along the way.

I haven't done any kind of CBA, but I suspect that the costs involved in packaging and distribution would stack up pretty well against what mere mortals waste in their kitchens.  (And anecdotally, it's instructive to bear in mind the number of people who rely on prepared foods every day.)  Maybe the math doesn't quite work, but I would argue that the convenience and learning opportunity that come with the program are worth paying something for.  (Note that it's a viable business already.)

The moral hazard objections are pretty obvious, but I suspect that a lot of it could be ironed out in implementation, and most of them are already present in the current system.  I'm sure we'd see a hell of a lot better outcomes for poor families than we get from the way we spend TANF funds on marriage counseling, even if it just comes down to better nutrition and more time for kids to interact with their parents.

So hey, Blue Apron, if you want to hire me to propose this to HHS,  I am completely untrained in business, but that would he one hell of a contract.

P. S. If you want to know how I really feel about Blue Apron, it really is fun and convenient, but I am underwhelmed when it comes to the veggies.  The amount of vegetables in a given dinner usually seem to be about half the mass I would try for, and probably 50% of the tomatoes I've gotten have not been any good at all.

P.P.S. As of the end of September, I've quit the service.  It's a little bit hard to keep up with all the food, and I only really am excited about one meal per week.  I have gotten a few good ideas, but I've been feeding myself for a while now, and I kind of want to go back to choosing what I eat.