You can be poor. You can eat steak.
But a New York Republican wants to ensure that you can't be poor and eat steak on the government's dime.
If the bill introduced by Sen. Patty Ritchie passes, families participating in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would be restricted from purchasing "luxury food items" like steak and lobster.
The proposal falls in line with a decades-old conservative fear that people use government assistance to purchase high-end foods. A strikingly similar proposal popped up last year in Missouri last year and another was signed into law by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in April.
The New York SNAP program already restricts recipients from purchasing alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, pet food and hot or prepared foods, according to the state. But under the new proposal, non-essential items would be broadened to include things such as soda, candy and cake, along with luxury foods, according to a statement released by Ritchie, who represents Oswegatchie in St. Lawrence County.
Essential items, her proposal notes, include "milk, juice, fruits, vegetables, granola bars, peanut butter and dozens of other healthy foods."
“The goal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to help low-income consumers make wise and healthy food choices — however in New York State, SNAP beneficiaries are able to use their taxpayer-funded EBT cards to purchase things like soda, candy, cake and other types of junk food and luxury items,” the statement says, referring to electronic benefit transfer cards.
“Many of these items aren’t just unhealthy, they’re also expensive," Ritchie's statement adds. "This legislation would not only help low-income families and individuals stretch their food budgets further and promote health and nutrition, it would also protect taxpayers from abuse of a program that’s intended to help those who have fallen on hard times.”
Ritchie's bill, the statement notes, would also require the state Office of Temporarily Disability Assistance to establish a list of "luxury food items" that cannot be purchased with an EBT card.
According to the state agency, there were nearly 3 million SNAP recipients in New York in December 2015. That month, the state spent more than $415 million on the program.
As Wonkblog's Roberto A. Ferdman noted in a story about the Missouri proposal last year, banning the purchase of cookies, chips, energy drinks, and soft drinks appears to uphold a food stamp program's mission to provide users with healthy food choices.
"But seafood and steak?" Ferdman wrote. "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," Washington University's Mark Rank, the author of "Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America," told Ferdman in regards to the Missouri proposal. "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?"
The Missouri bill — HB813 — never made it out of committee.
New York republicans have pushed several proposals in recent years that restrict how welfare recipients spend their benefit money. In 2014, the New York State Senate passed the “Public Assistance Integrity Act,” which prohibits welfare recipients from using cash assistance for casino gambling or to purchase cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and lottery tickets.
The legislation, which never made it past the state assembly, would also have prevented welfare recipients from using EBT cards to make ATM withdrawals from including liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.
In 2010, then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg requested federal permission to keep the city's food stamps recipients from using their money to purchase soda and other unhealthy drinks, according to the New York Times. The effort, the Times reported, was part of a larger campaign to reduce obesity following a failed attempt to add a tax to the price of sugary drinks.
New York has the 12th lowest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to an annual obesity report produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But the percentage of obese people in New York state is trending upward, moving from 17.1 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2014, according to the report.