Maine is poised to ban food stamps recipients from buying certain types of food that Governor Paul LePage (R) and conservatives in the legislature deem to be “junk.”
The legislation LePage supports claims that “the purchase of unhealthy products is antithetical to the purpose of the [food stamps] program.” But the definition of “unhealthy” that the bill uses is quite broad, and would prohibit the purchase of a range of groceries that are not exempt from sales tax under Maine law. That means alcohol, soda, unprescribed dietary supplements, seltzer and bottled water, sweets, “and prepared food.”
The law goes even further than the tax code to prohibit food stamps from being used for bulk purchases of groceries that could be considered “prepared food” if they were bought individually. According to state tax guidelines, that includes packaged deli meats, large jars of spaghetti sauce, and pickles, among other things.
Burdening the poorest with more rules is in vogue with Republicans these days. Kansas recently passed sweeping new restrictions on EBT card usage, and one Missouri legislator has proposed a far-reaching nutritional rule that would prohibit buying seafood and steak – even cheap staple proteins like canned tuna and low-grade beef – with food stamps.
LePage isn’t following the herd, though. He’s got a long record of statements and policy ideas that correspond with this mentality toward public assistance beneficiaries in his state.
The problem behind Maine’s 32,000 unemployed people, according to LePage, is that they’re lazy. Maine’s 12,000 families on welfare, he says, are too busy getting high to pull up their bootstraps. The state wouldn’t have 230,000 people on food stamps, LePage believes, if they’d just stop spending so much time in bars and strip clubs and start getting jobs that don’t necessarily exist. The governor’s other big idea for helping people in need was moving the building that houses many Maine social service programs from a downtown Portland building to a new spot in South Portland, 72 bus-stops away.
LePage’s efforts have sometimes been at odds with concrete evidence about how benefits are used and what is effective at getting people out of poverty. When his study of where food stamps and welfare cards withdraw cash found that just two-tenths of a percent of all such spending happens at bars and strip clubs, he said the finding “indicates a larger problem than initially thought.” Despite overwhelming evidence from other states that drug testing welfare applicants is misguided and expensive, LePage sought and received permission to make Maine applicants pee in a cup if they have been convicted on a drug charge in the past 20 years.
The broader idea behind all this is that poor people need to have their behavior policed tightly in order to keep safety net programs like TANF and SNAP from becoming “a hammock,” in the preferred analogy of chief Republican poverty crusader Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The underlying assumptions about how welfare recipients budget and behave are incorrect. Safety net beneficiaries spend less of their limited budgets on luxuries than the typical American household. A quarter of them do not own a car, compared to just 3 percent of non-recipient families. Compared to richer Americans, poor families spend twice as much of their money on home-cooked meals.
Maine’s drive to begrudge its working poor access to comfort food is being billed as a public health campaign. But poverty itself is the public health crisis that needs addressing here. Living in poverty has the same effect on the adult brain as pulling an all-nighter. Growing up poor has developmental effects that trail children long into adulthood and may even decrease their lifespans. Even children who grow up in relative material comfort within impoverished neighborhoods will see a drag on their long-term economic, educational, and psychological well-being.
Extra restrictions and stigma for how food stamps recipients can use their meager benefits just exacerbate the core indignities and hardships they face. “In America today, being poor is tantamount to a criminal offense,” Kentucky writer and SNAP recipient Jeanine Grant Lister wrote recently in the Washington Post, “one that costs you a number of rights and untold dignities, including, apparently, the ability to determine what foods you can put on the dinner table.” A 2013 Post profile of how SNAP families in Rhode Island shop recounted a devastating anecdote of a mother named Rebecka Ortiz trying to talk her three-year-old daughter out of demanding a bag of cookies on a tightly-budgeted grocery store run. Tightening the already-extensive rules and scrutiny that America’s poorest families are subjected to when they fall on hard times doesn’t do much to help people out of poverty, but it does increase their stress and add shame to their daily lives.