Economy

New York Conservatives Want To Reach Into Poor People’s Grocery Carts And Tell Them What To Buy

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

A woman buys groceries with her food stamps card.

Low-income New Yorkers could soon find Big Brother rifling through their grocery carts, if state Sens. Patty Ritchie (R) and Michael Nozzolio (R) have their way.

The two lawmakers have introduced a bill to ban food stamps cards from being used to buy a laundry list of foods, arguing both that poor people are too fat and that they’re currently allowed to enjoy foods that are too tasty.

“At a time when our state and nation are struggling with an obesity epidemic, it is critically important that taxpayer funded programs help low income consumers make wise and healthy food choices,” reads a legislative memo accompanying the bill. “The purpose of SNAP is to promote good nutrition, but current rules allow the purchase of junk food and luxury items like high-end steaks and lobster.”

If the law were to pass and receive federal approval, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would cease being a valid form of payment for a variety of purchases.

Sandwiches prepared at bodegas and delis, for instance, could no longer be bought with SNAP anywhere in New York. And bottled water, seltzer, ice, honey-roasted nuts, and vegetable seeds or seedlings intended to be planted at home would all be cut off, according to a review of state sales tax rules.

That’s only the first stage of the ban. The bill also instructs a state agency to go through the list of tax-exempt foods, too, and decide which of them should count as “luxuries” that should no longer be covered under SNAP. This is the provision hoping to target “high-end steaks and lobster” — but there’s no reason to believe the hunt for “luxuries” would stop there. The list of groceries that are exempt from state sales taxes, and that could potentially be targeted by this second stage of the Ritchie and Nozzolio bill, includes staples like baking products, bouillon, cereal, instant breakfast mix, dried fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, all seafood, poultry, and meat products, and all sauces and gravies, the state rules indicate.

Ritchie and Nozzolio aren’t the first conservatives to focus on cracking down on SNAP benefits. Such “junk food bans” have been attempted repeatedly by state lawmakers since 2003, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) first tried out the idea in Minnesota. Since then, the idea’s been debated in Maine, Texas, Iowa, California, Florida, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, and Delaware.

This legislation persists despite the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture has consistently rejected the idea and published a clear statement in 2007 concluding that such policies are unworkable. The agency turned down Pawlenty in 2003 and has never wavered in opposing the idea, which has only rarely proceeded far enough in a state legislature that the agency had to actually respond to a waiver request.

Under new management in 2011, the agency repeated its opposition when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) sought an agency waiver to ban soda from the program. The agency’s “longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions that are better-suited for the working families, elderly, and other low-income individuals” meant that Bloomberg’s idea was a non-starter, Sec. Tom Vilsack wrote to the mayor.

Indeed, the agency offers a variety of incentives toward healthy eating already: Food stamps are worth double at farmers’ markets, and the agency operates pilot programs in some states to refund part of every SNAP dollar spent on fresh produce.

What’s more, USDA research on what Americans buy and eat across different socioeconomic categories has shown that SNAP families aren’t all that different from economically independent ones — and in some ways are even smarter shoppers.

SNAP families don’t actually drink more soda than rich families once you adjust the data for demographics. They eat less candy. They turn to cheaper proteins like chicken, pork, eggs, and beans, but consume just as much overall protein as richer shoppers. They are less likely to eat shellfish than either wealthy shoppers or other low-income families that haven’t enrolled in food stamps even though they could.

Ritchie and Nozzolio have crafted their bill a bit differently from similar recent legislation in Maine and Wisconsin. Their bill punts the question of what counts as a “luxury” to the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which may or may not decide things like dried fruit, cooking sauces, seafood, vegetable juice, and bakery products should be excluded from SNAP in addition to the list of automatic exclusions under the bill.

But even if New York didn’t follow Wisconsin’s lead in trying to define such staple foods as luxury items, the idea would still run counter to the core idea behind conservative poverty reforms. Critics of the current system frequently say they want to move low-income families toward self-sufficiency. But telling adult shoppers what choices they can and can’t make for their families pushes people the opposite direction, disempowering them to make up their own minds about their basic nourishment.

Plus, the state would like spend millions of its own funds to execute Ritchie and Nozzolio’s plan, while saving exactly zero dollars from federally-funded SNAP benefits.