Economy

Wisconsin Republicans Would Spend Millions To Micromanage Poor People’s Shopping

CREDIT: Flickr/USDA

Wisconsin would have to spend millions of dollars to realize a Republican scheme to restrict how poor people shop for food, state fiscal analysts revealed Wednesday.

The measure would prohibit stores from accepting food stamps to pay for any form of shellfish and put a new limit on how much a food stamps recipient could spend on a long list of other foods including dry beans, spaghetti sauce, and cooking spices. It provoked outrage from Democrats in the legislature, who used a recent committee hearing on the bill to point out bizarre foibles in the list of foods that Rep. Robert Brooks (R) proposes to constrain.

But at the time of that hearing, no one was able to say how much it would cost the state to implement Brooks’ idea. Now the state’s official bean counters have made their perspective on the bill publicly available, giving opponents more ammunition.

While exact costs are impossible to guess, the analysts wrote, “costs for Wisconsin would total several million dollars.” They base that estimate on very different SNAP programs in other states that required similar overhauls of cash registers and state computer systems. The analysis notes that the expenses would be too large for existing departmental budgets to absorb, meaning that the state would have to come up with new money for implementing the grocery store constraints at a time when the state is expecting zero revenue growth and Gov. Scott Walker (R) is proposing enormous cuts to the state budget.

Wisconsin is currently transitioning from paper vouchers to electronic cards for a different nutrition support program. It’s cost about $3.6 million to transition to the cards for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits. But the federal government is paying for that. If Wisconsin adopts Brooks’ constraints on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, it would have to pay at least half the cost of new systems on its own. And “costs to implement [Brooks’] bill would be higher than WIC because FoodShare has more enrollees and more participating retailers,” the fiscal analysis notes. The state’s SNAP program provided an average monthly benefit amount of $220 to about 420,000 households per month last year.

One Republican defected from his colleagues after the analysis became public, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, but the Public Benefit Reform Committee still sent Brooks’ measure to the full Assembly on an 8-6 vote Wednesday.

The cost of micromanaging low-income people’s shopping carts might have been enough to put one Wisconsin lawmaker off the idea, but bills like Brooks’ are popular among conservatives at the state level. Maine is pursuing a “junk food ban” for SNAP. An ultra-intrusive version of the idea in Missouri appears to have stalled, but a Kansas measure barring food stamps from being used in movie theaters, pools, and cruise ships was signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) recently.

Wisconsin has further plans to subject its SNAP families to hostility and suspicion. Walker is eager to implement drug testing for food stamps applicants, despite the fact that the roughly half-dozen states to try that idea in recent years have spent millions of dollars to find out that almost zero food stamps applicants fail drug tests. People in need of safety net programs in the state are aggravated by the idea.