Monday, March 23, 2015

Missouri Lawmakers Think Welfare Recipients Waste Money on Fish, Steak and Porn

Posted By on Mon, Mar 23, 2015 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge Seafood: A luxury Missouri's welfare recipients don't deserve? - FLICKR VIA MIKE MOZART
  • Flickr via Mike Mozart
  • Seafood: A luxury Missouri's welfare recipients don't deserve?

They say if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. But teach the man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.

Some Missouri lawmakers have seemingly taken the old saying and distilled it down to its most reductive lesson: Don't give fish to poor people.

Indeed, there seems to be something a bit twisted in Republican Representative Rick Brattin's House Bill 813, which would bar Missouri's roughly 930,000 food-stamp recipients from using their government payouts to buy seafood. The bill would also ban energy drinks, soda, cookies, chips and steak.

See also: Hungry and Broke but Have a Drug Felony? MO Still One of Few States That Says: "Starve"

Brattin's bill follows in the footsteps of several recent laws designed to restrict how needy Missourians use their federal assistance. In 2011 the legislature passed a law that required drug testing applicants who were applying for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Two years later lawmakers banned the use of electronic benefit cards to withdraw welfare funds from casino and strip-club ATMs.

Another bill proposed this year would prohibit welfare recipients from buying porn.

"There's a long history of trying to dictate what somebody should be buying on food stamps. The program itself has been really stigmatized," says Washington University professor Mark Rank, who authored Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America.

While some restrictions on food stamps benefits make sense, Rank says banning seafood is a hard to justify. There's just no data, he says, to suggest Missouri's poor are using their electronic benefit cards to gorge on lobster.

"There have been a lot of studies on fraud, when there were actually people buying, trading and selling their EBT cards, but it was a very small percentage of the overall population," he says. "But fish is good for you -- why should that be prohibited?"

According to Rank, the cultural stigma around welfare is at least partly to blame for these kinds of laws. Legislators and media outlets can easily gin up outrage by citing anecdotal accounts of how food-stamp recipients are living large off their own poverty, but there's little one can prove from, say, one California surfer buying crab legs with his EBT card.

Rank agrees that limiting junk foods may be good strategy to improve the nutritional value of the groceries that welfare recipients bring home, but it's a contentious issue among experts and activists. The USDA has so far resisted calls to ban unhealthy foods outright, and an Illinois study last year found that even if sugary drinks were banned, welfare recipients would still buy them with their own money.

Instead, Rank points to solutions that increased food choices, such as allowing welfare recipients to use their EBT cards at farmers' markets. More nutritious options, he says, will go much further in improving diets than laws that merely reinforce paternalistic "concerns" over what poor people are and are not eating.

"What I find is, first of all, food stamps run out by the third week of the month," says Rank. "A lot of people I met are extremely frugal in terms of using their food stamps and making decent decisions for what foods to buy or not."

"What I find," he adds, "is for the most part, people are trying to get by."

We left messages with Brattin's office but have yet to hear back.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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