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Washington's adventures in advertising

By Michael M. Bates
web posted October 17, 2005

Last Monday, the Washington Post ran a story about Medicare's new prescription drug program. The government will spend $300 million over the next three years to advertise the benefit. By Thanksgiving, Americans will be exposed to over $7 million worth of TV commercials about it.

This is a continuation of a long honored Washington policy: Instigate new programs and then do extensive "outreach" and advertising to encourage participation. Politicians and bureaucrats join together in this endeavor. The more people they can sign up, the more evidence that the program was absolutely, positively necessary to begin with.

The pols take bows for munificently providing essential human services. The bureaucrats expand their territory, increase their influence and protect their jobs. A classic win-win situation. Except for taxpayers.

The Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service is responsible for outreach services for the Food Stamp Program (FSP). Go to its web site and you can download or order a variety of promotional materials.

In addition to informational brochures, there are flyers and posters targeted for specific audiences. You can get a poster or a flyer with kids, of course. But if you want one with senior citizens, blacks, Hispanics, or women in wheelchairs, your government's got you covered.

A common theme of the materials is "Food Stamps Make America Stronger." You can order magnets, bookmarks and even flying disks (sorry, a limit of 200 per order) that say so. And don't forget the 200 food stamp pens that can be requested.

Not everyone speaks English, of course. So the government provides, for download, information in almost three dozen languages other than English. These include questions and answers about food stamp eligibility, what documents are required to apply and "a notice to reassure immigrants that receiving food stamps will not make them public charges, so that it will not affect their immigrant status." Like you, I was worried about that.

As you would expect, government's efforts to pump up the rolls go further. Millions of dollars in grants are issued every year by the Agriculture Department for the purpose of increasing awareness and availability of food stamps.

The Nevada Department of Human Resources was awarded almost half a million dollars last year to "install 10 kiosks in 8 grocery stores and in 2 welfare district offices so individuals can be screened for eligibility and apply for food stamps on-line (the kiosk application would be in both English and Spanish)."

But citizens will get even more. There will be an "outreach worker in each grocery store for 3-4 hours each week to promote use of the kiosks, answer questions, and assist in filling out applications. Finally, the DHS would undertake a marketing campaign to promote use of the kiosks."

The New Mexico Association of Food Banks scored even more dollars from Uncle Sam than Nevada. One of their innovative strategies is "training food stamp champions who will be located in the food stamp offices and who will communicate the value of the FSP to both customers and staff."

That's interesting. They need "champions" to persuade those administering food stamps of their importance? I'd think a paycheck on alternating Fridays would suffice.

Whenever Washington's hands out bucks, we know that the Land of Lincoln will elbow its way to the front of the line. The Illinois Department of Human Services received just under a million dollars to "build a data bridge that would permit information collected through web-filed applications and from automated telephone interviews to be transmitted directly into the DHS database and processing systems."

The Agriculture Department's mandate is clearly to sign up as many participants as possible. One has to wonder if there is an equal emphasis on making certain that those getting food stamps are eligible for the benefits they receive. Streamlining and computerizing to make it easier to access benefits open new opportunities for fraud.

And we're looking at merely the tip of the iceberg, just part of one program of one federal department. We've not even examined federal grants for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and no, I'm not making that up.

Tax dollars spent for outreach, promotion, public information and other forms of advertising by not just agriculture, but by commerce, defense, education, health and human services, housing and urban development and all the other departments are astronomical.

Mark Twain wrote that "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising." That appears to have become official government policy.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay originally appeared in the October 13, 2005 Oak Lawn (IL) Reporter.

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