Some big dogs can learn new tricks, to wit: Costco has agreed to accept food stamps at most of its locations.
This is very good news. At first the giant warehouse store (headquartered in Issaquah, Washington) said no to the idea, assuming the $50 annual fee was too much of a deterrent to people getting government aid. (Store execs were probably also wary of dealing with the government paperwork involved, and it’s hard to blame them for that.)
It’s true that membership fees and big-discount sizes of stuff are tricky for thinner wallets. When broke, you often spend more to get less. You buy small sizes of things because the sticker price is lower. The fact that the $3 bottle of ketchup is half the size of the bottle that sells for $4 doesn’t matter. You have $3 today, not $4, and you need ketchup today, not the promise of cheaper condiments all month.
But this is not a hard-and-fast rule for poor people any more than it is for folks of means. Costco pilot programs showed a level of nuance in shopper trends that’s been overlooked. It seems that people on food stamps are indeed willing and organized enough (imagine!) to plan ahead, spend more upfront, and save money. People gladly get away from the $3 ketchup behavior if it is really worth their while.
The success of the Costco food-stamp pilots may also be helped by the fact that a $50 membership can be shared with another “household member” and Costco doesn’t check to see if that person with the extra card is really, truly your sister who lives in the attic. This benefit is already widely claimed by people not on food stamps, trust me.
It also helps that the visuals of giant-sized products are so enticing. There is something about the sight of 4 pounds of Rice Krispies and a half-gallon of shampoo that makes one feel somewhat more secure, as do the vats of red licorice and hunks of Tillamook cheddar cheese. If I have clean hair and snacks, all is not lost.
Given the huge amount of taxpayers’ money that has been handed over to banks and automakers to little positive effect, perhaps the feds should subsidize warehouse-shopping memberships and local-transit routes that serve Costco locations. (The stores are usually a long walk from the nearest bus stop, and you still see people climbing aboard with a shrink-wrapped raft-size cargo of toilet paper.)
Costco’s long check-out lines are full of well-dressed people pushing carts of fine wines, gourmet cheeses and premium meats. It’s a good thing to open the doors to people who actually need cheaper food.