The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wisconsin wants to discourage the poor from spending food stamps on junk food

(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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The list of things lawmakers are seeking to prevent poor people from doing with government assistance seems to grow by the day.

Not to be left out of the recent wave of legislative attempts, Wisconsin lawmakers revived efforts to require food-stamp recipients to use them to purchase mostly healthy foods. The measure passed in the State Assembly on Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers who have pushed the proposal during the current legislative session and in the past say they aren’t trying to “stigmatize” or “shame” the about 856,000 people who participate in Wisconsin’s food stamp program, which is called FoodShare.

They argue that limiting the purchase of junk food promotes healthy eating, reduces unspecified “abuses” and benefits society in the long run.

“There is a direct financial benefit not just to the individual, which of course is obvious to have better health, but also to state taxpayers and society as a whole,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R), according to the Associated Press.

[Gwyneth Paltrow bought on food stamps what only rich people buy]

However, opponents of the measure say that it only further burdens a group of people who are struggling to get by. Implementing the measure is expected to also cost businesses millions, and the restrictions on food purchases will hurt local food manufacturers, opponents argue.

Here are some of the bill’s details, according to the Journal Sentinel:

Under the proposal, people couldn’t buy crab, lobster or other shellfish with food stamps and would have to spend two-thirds of their benefits on produce, beef, pork, poultry, potatoes, dairy products or food available under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Wisconsin is just one of several states attempting to crack down on the use of government benefits for activities and purchases that are deemed “luxuries” or wasteful.

Missouri Republicans tried to pass a similar measure that would ban the purchase of steak, seafood along with cookies, chips, energy drinks and soft drinks.

And Kansas  lawmakers last month banned the poor from using welfare money on swimming pools and visits to the movie theater.

In this case, Wisconsin Republicans are fixated on preventing the poor from buying unhealthy foods, along with shellfish.

The requirements aren’t onerous, says the lead sponsor of Assembly Bill 177, Rep. Robert Brooks. In his own home, “less than 10 percent or 20 percent” of the grocery items his family purchases fall into the category of restricted foods, he said, according to the Journal Sentinel.

“With help from the government comes responsibility,” Vos, the speaker, noted at a news conference. 

[The astonishing state-by-state rise in food stamp reliance]

But at what cost, opponents ask.

“It’s a restriction that’s designed just to make the lives of those that are already struggling that much harder,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), according to the Capital Times. “And instead, we should be focusing not on the foods people buy but on putting people to work by creating jobs that get people off of FoodShare.”

As The Post’s Emily Badger noted, the rich and the middle class get government subsidies, too, but they rarely come with the preconditions that seem to be frequently placed upon the poor:

We don’t drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don’t require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they’re pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don’t require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don’t use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.

Business coalitions have also mobilized in opposition to the measure, partly for self-interested reasons, but also by utilizing a broad argument against government mandates that dictate what people can put in their grocery bags.

“Though well-intentioned, Assembly Bill 177 is a threat to both job creation in our state and our right to decide for ourselves what to put in our grocery carts,” a coalition of groups representing grocery manufacturers, food processors, and growers wrote in a statement. “While we recognize the intent of this bill is to promote healthy choices, the unintended consequences of the proposal will do far more harm than good.”

The bill, they added, would  “dramatically increase government power,” which would seem to run counter to the small-government principles espoused by most Republicans.

Businesses, and at least one GOP lawmaker in Wisconsin who voted against the measure, also worry that it would be expensive to implement, because it would require stores to deploy new hardware to track whether approved foods are being purchased with food stamps.

[When work isn’t enough to keep you off welfare and food stamps]

Wisconsin’s Assembly also passed a measure requiring drug testing for people participating in the state’s job training program, which is required for some people who receive food stamps.

Despite the opposition, Republican lawmakers pushed forward and approved the food stamp measure by a largely partisan majority on Wednesday.

However, obstacles remain. It must first pass the state’s Senate, which refused to take up a similar bill in the previous session. And because Wisconsin’s food stamp program isn’t actually funded by the state government, the state would need to seek a waiver from federal administrators to put the program in place.

No state has ever been granted such a waiver.