Michael Watkins/Courier Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card used by SNAP users in California.
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“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”- Frederick Douglass

I was at the grocery store a few weeks ago with a friend of mine doing her weekly shopping. My friend is very health conscious so she loaded up her cart with lentils, quinoa, turkey breast, fresh fruits, vegetables, chia seeds, and a pack of Atlantic Salmon and scallops from the seafood deli.

When we got to the checkout line, we began putting items on the belt. As her items were being rung up my friend pulled out her iPhone to check a text message then pulled out her card to pay for the food.

A woman in line behind us nearly had a conniption when she saw my friend holding the Golden State Advantage, Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to pay for her groceries.

“I’m tired of seeing you people with iPhones and designer bags spending my hard-earned money! I don’t even get to eat seafood, why should you?” the woman ranted at us.

I’ll spare you the details of my friend’s response in order to keep this PG rated. But this attitude towards people on public assistance is not only very common, it’s just one cog in the system of classism and poverty that we continue to ignore, yet pass judgment on.

The issue of welfare and social services is a major wedge issue for politicians with Republicans in several states introducing bills to ban welfare recipients from buying steak and seafood, to others calling for drug testing of welfare recipients.

This attitude is perpetuated by other taxpayers who make assumptions based on a person’s clothing, hairstyle and accessories whether or not they should or shouldn’t be on public assistance.

There have been many incidents of shoppers being publicly shamed by other shoppers and even store employees when they present their EBT card for payment.

The fact is, no one knows what circumstances a stranger comes from. No one knows if their handbag or shoes were a gift, or whether their iPhone was purchased before they hit hard times, yet public shaming and claims of poor people being drug addicts run rampant.

Evidence and research has shown that drug testing welfare recipients does nothing more than cost taxpayers more money than they would be saving from banning drug users in states like Florida, Texas, Montana and Oklahoma.

Florida’s bill, which was struck down by the courts, showed that they didn’t produce any reliable estimates of drug use among recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (TANF) ThinkProgress reported

“The seven states with existing programs?—?Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah?—?are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out very few drug users. The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years.”

The efforts to drug test welfare recipients is nothing more than an effort to humiliate and shame low-income people by attempting to perpetuate false stereotypes of drug use among the poor who use social services.

Michael Watkins/Courier
Homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles.

Going even further, many states have also moved to introduce bills banning people from buying certain types of food with food stamp money.

The NY Daily News reported that “Tennessee State Rep. Sheila Butt introduced a bill Thursday that would ban shoppers from buying junk food, sweets and other high-calorie snacks with public assistance dollars.

“‘When you’re receiving taxpayer dollars, it’s not money that you’ve have earned. It’s money that other people have earned and is redistributed to you. Strings come along with that,’ the Republican said in a statement announcing her bill.

“‘At the end of the day, if you’re on public assistance, you shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to consume junk food that leads to additional health problems and more taxpayer assistance to address those problems.’”

According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “no evidence exists which indicates that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices and negative dietary outcomes, such as obesity.”

The report continued, “there is no strong research-based evidence to support restricting food stamp benefits. Food stamp recipients are no more likely than higher income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value; thus the basis for singling out low-income food stamp recipients and restricting their food choices is not clear.”

Butt, intentionally or not, ignores two major problems with the bill. The first is that people who receive foods stamps are low-income and the food stamp money they receive is not enough to purchase healthier foods.

According to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “The average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient receives about $127 a month … or about $4.23 a day, $1.41 per meal…”

Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as lean proteins, cost more and that’s if families have access to those foods, as many SNAP recipients live in food deserts.

The second thing Butt doesn’t acknowledge is that the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients work and therefore pay taxes. Butt’s claim that SNAP recipients are receiving money that other people have earned is not 100 percent true as they are also paying into the system that they’re using.

An argument can surely be made that providing money for people to buy junk food is counterproductive to maintaining the health and wellness of the public. However, without solving the problems of food deserts, food costs and access to housing and resources, it’s illogical to restrict access to certain foods for those that already have limited options on what they can consume. 

Michael Watkins/Courier
“Man-Man” and his owner “So Motha Fuckin Real” sit on a sidewalk in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles.

This is akin to telling someone covered in mud to clean themselves up and handing them a wet wipe.  

Also, this stance is hypocritical when you consider the right-wing outcry over NYC’s proposed soda ban back in 2014.

The ban, introduced by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, faced conservative backlash from those who said he was infringing on their rights to make their own decisions about what they consume, and that it amounted to over regulation.

Essentially, Republicans support freedom to eat and drink what they wish, but don’t support low-income SNAP recipients making the same decision, just because a few dollars of their own money goes toward that choice.

Republicans have continued their efforts to demonize the poor by trying to ban certain healthy food items. Republicans in New York introduced a bill last year to ban the purchase of “luxury items” like steak and seafood for those receiving SNAP benefits.

Seafood has been shown to be part of a healthy diet, and depending on the cuts of steak, they can be a healthy source of protein. Even so, The Huffington Post cited a study that showed that SNAP recipients don’t eat any more seafood than anyone else, and consume beef in similar quantities.  

The NY bill was introduced for no other reason than the same criticism leveled at my friend which amounts to, “I can’t afford to eat steak and seafood, why should you?” Missouri State Rep. Rick Brattin admitted as much in 2015 when he told The Washington Post, “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] cards. When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to.” then went even further to state that people were abusing the system by purchasing “luxury foods.”

Republicans and conservatives should simply admit that their demonization of food stamp recipients is based on nothing more that ego and jealousy towards a group they see as inferior to themselves. It’s hard to see how their actions could be motivated by anything other than the impulse to shame, humiliate and demean the low-income and homeless populations in the U.S.

Michael Watkins/Courier
A homeless encampment on the corner of San Pedro in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles.

 

 

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