Opinion Columns & Blogs

Food stamp ‘rebranding’ is a lemon

Join me as I play a word association game. The way this works is, you utter a word or phrase and then say the first thing that pops into your mind. Ready? OK, here we go.

First word: CalFresh.

Mmmmm. I’m thinking of something pleasant. It’s fresh, it’s California. It’s sunshine and fluffy clouds and outdoors. Lovely.

Next phrase: Food stamps.

Ouch. Food stamps are dark and they conjure up poverty and times of trouble, down-and-out people standing in lines. I don’t feel so upbeat and bubbly anymore, like I did when I was thinking about CalFresh. Bummer.

So what does the one phrase have to do with the other phrase?

Here’s what: The state food stamp program will henceforth be known as the CalFresh program, per order of the California Department of Euphemisms.

OK, it was the Legislature. There is no state Department of Euphemisms. At least not officially.

Over the past couple of years, our legislators took time out from their sterling work resolving the state budget crisis to order the Department of Social Services to change the name of the food stamp program.

The DSS jumped right on it with typical bureaucratic efficiency, convening meetings, setting up focus groups, hiring a marketing firm.

Then they sent letters to county social services departments, ordering them to implement the change and explaining why.

CalFresh was chosen because it represents “a healthy lifestyle and a ‘fresh’ new program,” is “identifiable with California,” promotes agriculture, and has a “colorful and eye-catching” logo.

There are additional reasons, but they’re mostly blah blah blah and yada yada yada.

The state calls this change “rebranding.”

Lee Collins, who heads the San Luis Obispo County DSS, received the memo and says at first, he thought the change was designed to boost morale, “because I cannot say ‘CalFresh’ in a room without many people breaking out into laughter.”

When he realized the state was serious, he says he “ask(ed) around the shop: ‘Say, there’s this new thing called ‘CalFresh.’ What do you suppose it is?’ ”

“Answers I received:

1. Air freshener. 2. Feminine product. 3. Eggs.”

The wry Collins predicts that “confusion will abound, as no one will know what ‘CalFresh’ is, and it may take years to get the expression ‘food stamps’ out of our system.” He notes that “my grandmother called that big white thing the ‘icebox’ until the day she passed on.”

One thing the state left out of its letter was the cost of implementing the change. Details, details.

My point here, however, is that whatever you call it, the essence of the program and the need for food stamps and the stigma associated with receiving them are not going to change.

It’s not that I think there should be a stigma. Once, long ago and far away, I had to go to food stamps for a couple of months because I had little alternative. Then the local apple canneries started hiring again, and I was OK. I assume most of the people who use food stamps now have also fallen on hard times and are looking to get off of them.

But food stamps are what they are, to adapt the cliché.

Those who have read my earlier screeds know how I feel about changing the name of something to make it appear different from what it really is.

My all-time favorite moniker change is the U.S. government transforming the Department of War into the Department of Defense. In other words, we don’t start wars; we merely defend ourselves.

That verbal misdirection took hold, and has endured.

My son, the philosopher, who teaches about euphemisms in his logic and critical thinking class, also has a couple of favorites: used car becoming “pre-owned car” and, especially, tax hike being disguised under the rubric of “revenue enhancement.”

Well, that’s the government for you. It will try to disguise the truth; it’s in the nature of governments (and business, too, of course).

The rest of us have little recourse other than to remain vigilant. To help you with this, and because it is gift-giving season, I am going to repeat a suggestion I have made before. If you have a kid in school, give him or her Orwell for Christmas.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is good, but even better is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s mandatory reading.