June 6, 2015

States Humiliate the Poor With Food Stamp Crackdown

(The Progressive) Legislators across the country are launching a mean-spirited campaign to block poor people from purchasing certain kinds of foods, products, or services.

Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin has introduced a bill to prevent food stamp recipients from buying “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”

A bill in the Wisconsin Legislature would require people who apply for food stamps or unemployment insurance to pass a drug test. Lawmakers also want to prohibit those on food stamps from purchasing “crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once commonly known as food stamps, permits people to obtain any food items except alcohol or hot prepared meals. One in seven Americans—roughly 46 million people—rely on the food assistance program. States must apply for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to place extra limits on the program, which makes the “no shellfish” rules all the more absurd, since the federal government won’t allow them anyway.

However, the 1996 federal welfare reform law gives states discretion to craft their own Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs. Here is where the bash-the-poor policy can really gain traction.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a bill that prevents welfare recipients from withdrawing more than $25 a day from an ATM and prohibits them from doing business with movie theaters, fortune tellers, cruise ships, swimming pools, and liquor stores.

Such measures, supposedly enacted in the name of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse, reflect a form of humiliation of the poor at a time when hunger and poverty are widespread.

Hunger is now a chronic problem in the United States. According to the Agriculture Department, 14.3 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2013 and 5.6 percent had very low food security. Approximately 45 million people—14.5 percent of the nation—live below the poverty line, nearly the highest number since these figures have been recorded.

The problem is not that too many poor people are splurging on snacks. The problem is that folks are hurting in America, and many who are working are not making a living wage. For most workers, real wages have not increased for decades.

According to a study from the University of California–Berkeley, 56 percent of people on government assistance—including food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—are working. This includes 52 percent of fast food workers, 48 percent of home care workers, 46 percent of child care workers, and a quarter of part-time college faculty.

Making it harder for the poor to eat is a cynical political ploy. It builds white resentment over government programs.

“If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket,” President Lyndon Johnson once said. “Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

Politicians want to distract the public with talk about food stamps and shellfish so that people won’t notice that the rich are the ones actually picking their pockets.

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