The Coupon Queen, the Safety Net, and the Future of Free
A couple of weeks ago I went grocery shopping at a small international market in an area of town that is home to a number of Indian and middle eastern shops. I was accompanied by my Malaysian father-in-law who had come to town to visit the new baby. As we were checking out, he pointed out a sign next to the register:
THIS LANE ACCEPTS FOOD STAMPS
He asked me what that meant.
Great question. Food stamps, I explained, are coupons, redeemable for food, issued by the government to people with a low income (or no income.) I went on to tell him that they are a key part of the economic "safety net" that the US provides to its citizens and non-citizen residents, with public housing being another part. I added that the current health care debate has to do with whether we will add universal health care insurance coverage to the safety net and, if so, how that will be implemented.
It turns out that my description of the Food Stamps program was wrong on one not terribly important, but still interesting, point. It seems the actual "stamps" or coupons were replaced quite a few years ago with a much handier debit card.
I was reminded of this conversation earlier this week when I came upon the story of the Coupon Queen. The Coupon Queen has an amazing skill:
A Boxford mother has earned the title of "queen of coupons" by learning to feed her family of six for less than $10 a week.
Kathy Spencer told WCVB-TV the trick is buying in bulk when items are on sale and using coupons to bring down the cost.
The station accompanied Spencer on a shopping trip to a Shaws grocery store. Spencer bought $279 in groceries for 39 cents.
Spencer spends about one hour a week collecting online coupons and scanning circulars and then four hours a week in grocery stores.
It's a lot of planning, but Spencer said it certainly pays off.
I have been hearing about the Coupon Queen for years now. She shows up in the media when economic times are tough, and then seems to fade into obscurity during good times. But she's always there. And she isn't any one particular person. There are apparently any number of pretenders to that particular crown. (You can see video of one of the other claimants to the title here.)
Now here's the interesting thing about the Coupon Queen. She and her sisters (as well as any would-be Coupon Kings out there) have implemented their own do-it-yourself food stamp program. Now they would probably argue that what they do is nothing like going on food stamps, but I'm not so sure.
The big differences:
1) There is no government involvement in being a Coupon Queen.
2) Being on Food Stamps is relatively passive compared to living the Coupon lifestyle. Once you're approved for the Food Stamps program, the government starts charging up your card. All you have to do is go spend the money. Whereas it looks like the Coupon Queen has to put in something approaching a 40-hour work week to maximize the benefits of her homemade program.
The big similarities:
1) A family on Food Stamps can get up to 100% of its grocery bill covered by the program. Most probably don't get everything covered, though. Let's just say that for most families on the program, Food Stamps account for about 75% of their grocery bill. In the stories we see, the Coupon Queen generally gets somewhere north of 90% of her family's groceries covered. However, that might not take into account all the extraneous expenses such as buying multiple newspapers, fuel costs, postage used to write manufacturers for additional coupons, etc. So let's say the typical Coupon Queen also gets about 75% of her family's grocery bill covered.
2) Both Food Stamps participants and the Coupon Queen are subsidized by the rest of us. Every time we pay full price (or even a lesser discount) for the products that the Coupon Queen is getting at 90% off, we help fund her lifestyle.
Both the Coupon Queen and her Food Stamps counterparts are enabled by the fact that we live in an age of relative abundance. But there is a major difference between these two manifestations of abundance: one is a carefully implemented and managed government program; the other is spontaneous, wholly unintended phenomenon wherein significant economic power (for a limited a number of individuals) emerges from the froth of retail marketing efforts.
And here's the most interesting difference between the two. My conservative and libertarian friends have major philosophical issues with welfare programs in general and the Food Stamps program in particular, but I doubt many of them would object to what the Coupon Queen does. Nor do I think most of my friends on the left would have a problem with it. Everybody admires the Coupon Queen for her economy and resourcefulness.
Okay, not everybody. In the comments thread of this Boing Boing story about yet another coupon queen, several of the readers take her to task. Even so, at best a typical Food Stamps recipient can expect to be told by the rest of the population that it's "okay" to use food stamps, that "there's nothing wrong," with doing so, that there's "nothing to be ashamed about." Contrast that with the Coupon Queen who is widely celebrated as an economic heroine.
I am convinced that we are rapidly approaching an era in which new technologies will eliminate all forms of material scarcity and want. (More on that here.) It's not clear what stepping stones will get us from today's scarcity-driven economy to one in which unlimited availability of...everything...is the fundamental economic assumption. And while I don't think that the coupon lifestyle (per se) can be scaled to become one of those stepping stones, I think the Coupon Queen is a harbinger of things to come.
The question we need to ask is this: what other models of abundance -- more robust and scalable than clipping coupons and yet just as widely approved of -- might we tease out of today's marketplace as well as the marketplace of the near future? One thing is for sure, as those stepping stones to post-scarcity begin to emerge, we will be dealing with something very different both from Food Stamps and from coupon-clipping. The time to start imagining that reality is now.