In 2013, Fox News broadcast an interview with a young food stamp recipient who claimed to be using the government benefit to purchase lobster and sushi.
“This is the way I want to live and I don’t really see anything changing,” Jason Greenslate, a surfer and rocker, explained to Fox. “It’s free food; it’s awesome.”
That story fit a longtime conservative suspicion that poor people use food stamps to purchase luxury items. Now, a Republican state lawmaker in Missouri is pushing for legislation that would stop people like Greenslate and severely limit what food stamp recipients can buy. The bill being proposed would ban the purchase with food stamps of “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”
“The intention of the bill is to get the food stamp program back to its original intent, which is nutrition assistance,” said Rick Brattin, the representative who is sponsoring the proposed legislation.
Curbing food stamp purchases of cookies, chips, energy drinks and soft drinks at least falls in line with the food stamp program’s mission to provide nutrition. Nutrition experts are already discussing whether to remove unhealthy items from the list of foods participants can buy.
But seafood and steak? Seafood has been shown, time and again, to be a healthy part of any diet. And steak is such a broad category that it’s essentially banning people from buying any flat cuts of beef, from porterhouse to flank.
“It just seems really repressive,” said Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University and author of the book “Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America.” “I don’t see how it makes any sense to ban some of these foods. Fish is something that should really be in your diet. And steak, what does that mean in this context?”
Brattin admits that the language might need some tweaking. “My intention wasn’t to get rid of canned tuna and fish sticks,” he said. But he also insists that people are abusing the system by purchasing luxury foods, and believes that that must be stopped, even if it ends up requiring the inclusion of other less luxurious items.
“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards,” he said. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”
Currently, a household of one can qualify for up to $194 dollars a month, or fewer than $7 dollars day, as part of SNAP, according to the Department of Agriculture. For a household of two, it’s roughly twice that. For a household of three, it’s about three times the amount.
It doesn’t take too much math to figure out that foods like lobster aren’t exactly within a recipient’s budget. And it’s also hard to draw conclusions based on a single purchase. What if that family that was purchasing a more expensive cut of meat had subsisted on cheaper canned goods for the past month in order to afford it?
Brattin’s proposal is part of what Rank laments is a long history of stigmatizing food stamps and welfare programs in America. Ronald Reagan famously told the story of one “welfare queen” as though she were representative of the system at large. Rank says that today, the myth is perpetuated using similar anecdotes, like the Fox example, which he argued should be viewed as distortions of reality.
“There are some isolated cases of abuse, sure,” said Rank. “But they are hardly representative of what the people struggling to get by on SNAP are actually buying . . . These people are spending their money extremely frugally.”
Brattin says his bill is about making the food stamp program revolve around nutrition, but it also touches on more than that: whether poor people should be allowed to purchase foods that are deemed fancy. And Rank argues that this crosses a line.
“More than anything else, I think this is about controlling people,” said Rank. “We should be treating people who are in poverty the same way we treat everyone else.”