When you’re trying to feed your family and stretch a dollar, steaks and short ribs don’t make it to your grocery list. As one of nine siblings in a low-income household in Wisconsin, my mother made a habit of buying inexpensive stewing meat for us. These tough cuts of beef came in handy when shopping on a budget, but if Missouri lawmakers have their way, stewing meat will be off the menu for the working class.
Republican State Representatives have recently introduced legislation that would regulate the kind of groceries one can purchase with taxpayer money, banning sales with food stamps for “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”
Impoverished Americans and the social safety net programs they depend on have increasingly become the target of forced political paternalism. Politicians at the local, state and federal levels have set behavioral standards as a condition to receive public assistance, ranging from ridiculous to outright unconstitutional. Implemented under the guise of fiscal responsibility and self-sufficiency, efforts to regulate the activities of low-income Americans have emerged all over the country.
In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott required Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tanf) applicants to submit to mandatory drug testing. After years of litigation, not only did two federal courts rule Governor Scott’s policy unconstitutional, but the state also failed to produce any reliable results of drug use among those tested. The program did, however, prove to be a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money.
Recently, Wisconsin governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker took Florida’s disastrous program to a whole new level by proposing recipients of both food stamps and unemployment benefits prove their sobriety in order to receive the vital social services necessary for survival. Despite outcries from local lawmakers and Wisconsin’s faith community, the governor stuck to his discriminatory policies. Governor Walker claimed his proposal wasn’t meant to hinder the ability to receive critical government assistance. In his own words: “I’m making it easier to get a job.”
Governor Sam Brownback upped the ante in Kansas by signing House Bill 2258 into law at the end of April. Similar to Republican efforts to implement restrictive voting laws to address the fictitious rash of fraud, this demeaning legislation aims to prevent welfare recipients from spending their assistance on entertainment items like tattoos, body piercings, spas, lingerie, theme parks and fortune-tellers, a remedy to a growing trend that simply doesn’t exist. Adding insult to injury, the law also sets tighter welfare eligibility requirements, cuts time limits for how long one can receive benefits and restricts ATM cash withdrawals from Tanf accounts to $25 a day.
The narrative of rampant exploitation with taxpayer dollars and a broken social safety net system can understandably infuriate people, but data tells a different tale. Yes, there are those who abuse these vital programs, but to paint the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap) and Tanf as rife with abuse is disingenuous. There is truth to the claim that Snap and Tanf beneficiaries use their funds for items not covered under these programs, but some of these items include toilet paper, shampoo, tampons, toothpaste and diapers. Is it really the government’s place to restrict these goods?
One would think that Republicans would be first to reject such government overreach as anathema to conservative values and philosophies, but politics has once again trumped policy.
We don’t drug-test wealthy CEOs who receive federal subsidies for their private jets, nor do we tell Pell Grant recipients which degrees to pursue. We don’t dictate how senior citizens should spend their social security checks, nor do we force judges or public officials to prove their sobriety to earn their paychecks. Attaching special demands to government aid exclusively targets our country’s most vulnerable individuals and families. The implication that those battling poverty are more susceptible to substance abuse is as absurd as it is offensive, and forcing people to choose between feeding their families and protecting their constitutionally protected rights is disgraceful.
In this ongoing competition of Republican one-upmanship against the poor there are no winners. If we abandon the idea that each of us is worthy of dignity, we all lose.