The latest proposal for ‘food stamps’ has aroused a good deal of anger. It’s a policy that is divisive, depressing and hideous in many ways – Suzanne Moore’s article in the Guardian is one of the many excellent pieces written about it. She hits at the heart of the problem: ‘Repeat after me: austerity removes autonomy’.
That’s particularly true in this case, and in more ways than even Suzanne Moore brings in. This new programme has even more possibilities to remove autonomy than previous attempts at controlling what ‘the poor’ can do with their money – because it takes food stamps into the digital age…
The idea, as I understand it, is that people will be issued with food ‘cards’, rather than old fashioned food stamps. The precise details of these cards have yet to emerge, and quite how ‘smart’ they will be has yet to be seen, but the direction is clear. The cards will only work in certain shops, and only allow the purchase of certain goods. At the moment they’re talking about stopping ‘the poor’ from buying such evil goods as tobacco and alcohol, but as Suzanne Moore points out, equivalent schemes in the US have blocked the purchase of fizzy drinks. In a digital world, the control over what can or cannot be purchased can be exact and ever-changing. It allows complete control – we can determine an ‘acceptable’ list of things that people can and cannot buy.
All well and good, so people might think. Let’s make sure people only eat fresh fruit and vegetables – improve the nation’s health, instil better eating habits, force people to learn to cook. All for the better! There are, however, one or two flaws in this plan.
Firstly, it seems almost certain that the plan will be effectively subcontracted out to private companies – and limited to specific shops. In Birmingham it has already been said that these cards will only work in ASDA. Doubtless there will be tendering process, and the different supermarkets will be vying for the opportunity to stake their claims. Once they do, which products will they be directing people to buy? The most nutritious ones? The cheapest ones? The most practical ones? Or the ones that will make them the most money?
Secondly, these cards present a built-in opportunity for profiling. Just as existing supermarket loyalty cards are used primarily to profile the people who use them, monitoring shopping habits in order (amongst other things) to find ways to convince people to spend more money, these kind of food cards can be used to profile the people who use them. This may not be any different from existing supermarket loyalty cards – but at least people have a choice as to which supermarket they use, and whether they want to be profiled. This kind of a system is effectively selling the profiles of people directly to the supermarkets, without any choice at all. Now of course privacy isn’t as important as food – but is it really right that we say that poor people aren’t allowed privacy?
Thirdly, a database will be built up of those who have the cards – and it will be a database that is crying out to be used. If those selling ‘pay-day loans’ with interest rates in the thousands get access to those databases they’ve got a beautiful set of potential targets to exploit – almost certainly complete with addresses included, just in case the people need a little ‘visit’ to chivvy them along in terms of payment.
There are further implications of this kind of thing – logical extensions to the idea. Once the system is introduced, it’s almost bound to be abused. If you have a ‘food card’ but need cash – for example to pay off a loan – then if someone else says ‘I’ll buy your card for cash, but at a 40% discount’, many, many people may accept that offer. The chances of a black market growing are huge, and the implications even worse. It would make the poor poorer (by whatever discount they’re forced to accept for their cards) for starters, but there’s more. If the authorities see this kind of abuse to the system happening, they’ll try to do something about it – for example, by requiring biometrics for verification. Fingerprints are even a possibility…
…which may seem far fetched, but school canteens around the country are already using fingerprint verification to allow children access to school meals. The technology is there – and those who make it and sell it will be lobbying the government to let them have contracts to do this.
That, again, makes the situation worse – making the databases even more invasive, even more open to abuse, and so the cycle begins again.
Of course this is only a side issue compared to the main issues of divisiveness, demonisation and sheer vindictive dehumanisation that are the inevitable consequences of this kind of scheme. I’m sure, however, that these possibilities won’t have escaped the eagle eyes of those working with these kinds of schemes. It may sound like a conspiracy theory – and indeed, to an extent it is – but it isn’t nearly as far fetched as might be imagined. As well as removing autonomy, austerity provides opportunities for those unscrupulous enough to use them – and sadly, as the last few years have made far too clear, there are plenty of people and companies like that.