Missouri Legislator’s Fishy Plan to End Food Stamp Abuse

Rick Brattin (Public Domain: Missouri House of Representatives)

Rick Brattin (Public Domain: Missouri House of Representatives)

In Missouri, state Rep. Rick Brattin wants to put an end to food stamp abuse or, as it is currently known, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The abuses are legendary – expensive foods purchased by supposedly cash-poor individuals and families. Anecdotal stories abound throughout the country, but it is hard to distinguish fact from myth.

House Bill 813 would seek to put an end to these abuses as “A recipient of supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits shall not use such benefits to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” Brattin’s goal is to halt the purchase of luxury, unhealthful or unnecessary items.

“The intention of the bill is to get the food stamp program back to its original intent, which is nutrition assistance,” Brattin said.

That’s a laudable goal. The poor should eat healthy. Many people do no believe that taxpayers should foot the bill for luxury items like crab and filet mignon when cheaper foods are available. Yet, tinkering with personal choice on something as basic of a human need as food opens up a plethora of questions.

First of all, if the goal is to have people eat healthier, eliminating fish is not the way to go. If anything, people should eat more seafood. It should not be banned from it because it is considered an elite food not to be shared with the poor.

How does canned tuna fit into this law? A tuna sandwich is a basic childhood meal that is nutritious, inexpensive and tasty. According to Brattin’s law, it is an abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Then there is steak. That is a broad term that means anything from a prime hindquarter cut to lower quality beef cubed and stewed. Limiting beef to only hamburger for food stamp recipients isn’t going to expose their children to the variety of foods they need to learn to eat for a healthy and well-balanced diet..

Limiting the amount of cookies, chips, energy drinks and sodas might improve the health of many people, but why ban it for food stamp recipients and keep it legal for taxpaying Americans if the goal is to create healthier lives? These snacks are not the only unhealthy items available for food stamp recipients. Are pies, cakes, ice cream and donuts still okay? The food police would have a field day with this one.

In Brattin’s bill, energy drinks are defined as a drink having sixty-five milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce drink meant  an increase to “the consumer’s mental or physical energy.” That language is questionable. Shouldn’t good nutrition help a person’s mental or physical energy? Energy drinks may not be good nutrition, but that isn’t the language to use to condemn them.

Brattin also leaves a big exemption: coffee. Many studies have pointed out coffee’s health benefits, but coffee isn’t cheap. If the goal is to provide nutrition to children, as Brattin claims that he wants by excluding single people without dependents from SNAP, then what good is coffee to a child’s nutrition? Besides, pouring a bunch of sugar into coffee as many people do and doesn’t become much different than any over-the-counter energy drink.

There is also the question of how accurate the anecdotal stories of food stamp abuse are. Conservatives like to believe there is widespread fraud by able-bodied Americans wanting to live on the dole. They point to sharp rise in SNAP benefits since 2008 and blame the giveaway Obama administration as the reason. None of this is true. Food stamp programs have always risen as the economy dives, and it did that during the Great Recession. As the economy improves, then so will SNAP benefits decline.

A recent study found that only 3% of the recipients are guilty of fraud. Another 7% is attributed to administrative mistakes or errors by applicants. That means 90% of the SNAP program is doing what it is supposed to do. If anything needs legislation, then it is legislation to improve the administration of SNAP.

The decades-long food stamp programs remain a success against poverty and poor nutrition. If some politicians want to alter the program, they should investigate the abuse in a coordinated, planned manner with a good study and not what a handful of their constituents tell them they saw in someone else’s cart at the grocery store.

Despite the criticism of food stamp abuse and the cost on taxpayers, the same concern is not raised with another burden upon taxpayers. That is agricultural subsidies. Corporate agribusinesses rack in billions every year for a few exclusive crops, such as wheat and corn. These companies don’t need agricultural subsidies to survive. If they did, then there business model is flawed. No one questions how these federal monies are spent or whether luxury food items are being purchased from the enhanced farm profits.

SNAP and farm subsidies are both government handouts. The difference lies in that one program goes to help children and needy people who don’t have a job, are down on their luck or are part of the working poor. The other is primarily for large farming enterprises that have built businesses on receiving government dollars. It is clear where the real abuse and waste in taxpayer dollars are going. It isn’t with the family struggling to put some food on the table and enjoying some fish now and then.

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