State Republicans bent on policing poor folks’ shopping carts see hope in Trump

Conservatives think Trump’s administration will welcome a bad idea that’s faced bipartisan rejection for 12 years.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen
CREDIT: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

State Republicans eager to pile new shopping cart rules onto food stamps recipients think their decade-old quest will finally pay off once Donald Trump is sworn in as president.

Officials in Arkansas and Maine are gearing up to ask Trump’s administration for permission to impose new restrictions on what Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) dollars can buy.

Maine Health and Human Services commissioner Mary Mayhew intends to have paperwork on the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) desk as soon as Trump takes power, she told the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. The proposal is likely to reflect Gov. Paul LePage’s (R) previous attempts to enact such rules, which would have barred SNAP dollars from being used to purchase any grocery item that’s subject to state sales tax, such as granola bars, trail mix, shelled nuts, and deli-made potato salad. Mayhew’s office did not respond to a request for more details on its current plan.

Maine is set to move faster than Arkansas, where Republican lawmakers have filed legislation that would ban products not approved for the separate, dietarily specific Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program that supplements food budgets for low-income mothers.

Roughly 600,000 people in the two states received SNAP benefits last September, the most recent period for which data is available.

In the past, states that take Arkansas’ legislative approach have often stopped short of actually requesting a USDA waiver to pursue the idea. The few that have formally asked for federal permission to tinker with the nation’s premier anti-hunger, anti-poverty program have all been denied.

In rejection letters going back to President George W. Bush’s first term, USDA officials have cited both the lack of evidence to justify these waivers and the prospect of many complex negative consequences for shoppers and stores alike. The agency has held a clear public line against so-called “junk food bans” since Minnesota Republicans first requested permission for such a ban under then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).

Food stamps families “are smart shoppers” who buy basically the same mix of foods that non-SNAP families consume, the agency wrote in 2004.

That’s still true. Outside analysts found “no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households” in 2016. Food stamps buyers spend a little bit more of their smaller budgets on sweetened beverages — 9.3 percent on average, compared to 7.1 percent for families not on the program — but have the same overall breakdown of their grocery spending as shoppers who aren’t using public benefits. An earlier private analysis released by the USDA in 2015 shows that wealthier families are more likely than SNAP families to eat sweets and shellfish, and that both categories of families get roughly the same amount of protein in their diets.

SNAP shoppers aren’t wasting their money on empty calories in some especially harmful way. They’re shopping like every other American, with a slightly higher reliance on basic staples like beans. Proponents of new restrictions on food stamps shopping are trying to solve a nonexistent problem at best — or, to more cynical eyes, singling out the impoverished for special rebuke.

But even if there were data to support these ideas, implementing them would be nightmarish. Shoppers would face the added humiliation of having their refrigerators audited by the state. And hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide that participate in SNAP would have to implement the rules at checkout counters.

“For people who care about efficient government, it’s pretty hard to get more efficient than the public-private partnership that SNAP has,” said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center. That efficiency means heavy-handed proposals like the junk-food rules risk pushing anti-hunger assistance off what Vollinger calls “the regular rails of commerce.”

States have struggled to design a version of a junk-food ban that wouldn’t also undercut low-income families’ autonomy over their own mealtimes. Wisconsin Republicans, for example, would have banned SNAP from buying staples like dried beans, pasta sauce, and cooking spices, even though their stated aim was only to restrict “junk.”

Even a perfectly designed rule, with adequate time and funding for stores and food producers to adapt their checkout systems and labels, would run counter to conservatives’ claims that state assistance produces psychological dependency. Republicans are effectively seeking to strip adults of the independence to determine what they’ll feed their families.

Such high-minded drawbacks were initially a significant part of the federal government’s resistance to approving this kind of thing. That 2004 letter denying Minnesota’s request cited “confusion and embarrassment” in checkout lines and “the reintroduction of a stigma of participation.”

In the years since Pawlenty’s first request, though, the character of the USDA’s objections has shifted. The agency has started to object for technical, practical reasons rather than on the basis of values.

When LePage re-upped his request for a waiver last year, for example, the agency rejected it not on the grounds that it is bad, harmful, costly, and unnecessary policy, but instead because it lacked the analytical rigor required for a pilot program examining potential changes to anti-poverty policy. The state wouldn’t have been able to show what effect its desired rules had had, the agency found.

That shift, from outright rejection of the notions behind “junk food bans” to a narrower, procedural denial, hints the feds may already be warming to the idea. Add in an unpredictable chief executive who often seems motivated more by antipathy toward his opponents than by any set ideology, and it’s easy to see why people like Mayhew feel a new confidence.

But Trump’s transition won’t necessarily bring in many new faces at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), a vast agency primarily staffed by career public servants rather than political appointees. Administration officials might therefore have to spend some political capital to break 12 years of precedent and give LePage and Mayhew the freedom to impose new burdens on the poor.

Hunger policy experts told ThinkProgress they’re optimistic the longstanding coalition around food and poverty will endure Trumpism, and protect clients from this kind of misguided meddling.

“We don’t have any evidence to support necessarily where new political appointees would be, how they would approach this issue. But certainly the same policy arguments [apply]. And there are a lot of sound policy reasons that have kept a proposal like that from being accepted and approved,” said Vollinger. “I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t going to be issues we have to tackle to make sure people understand the ramifications and the logistics of the system. But I don’t think anybody’s made the assumption that this is what the American people voted for.”

There are no guarantees, she said, but nor is there a dark new dawn breaking over conversations that nutritionists and experts have been having for decades. “The hunger community has a lot of allies and people that understand the strengths of the programs. Over the years we’ve weathered ups and downs. So part of what you’re getting is not Pollyanna-ish, not assuming there won’t be battles ahead, but just not panicking,” she said. “It’s probably premature for anybody associated with any of these issues to make too many assumptions.”

Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities agreed, noting that conflicts like this arise because states and feds observe the system from very different vantage points.

“States are often less sensitive to adding complexity and difficulty in the checkout line, and to what that means for the stores who are crucial partners in this program,” said Dean. “USDA is very thoughtful about the impact of changing the shopping experience for clients, both on clients and on stores.”

Get those two different actors talking to each other, and the solutions become clear. “States are going to be better served pursuing policies that seek to educate and empower clients to make better choices,” Dean said.