During the first of the month, you have probably seen them gallivanting around town at the fast food restaurants sharing a meal with the kids or at the mall buying new clothes and shoes for them. There’s also Walmart where you may have seen them ransacking every aisle for enough toilet paper and soap to last at least 30 days. You also have seen them roaming around the grocery stores with their shopping carts loaded down with Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, steaks, potatoes, ice cream, and cookies. And then they pull out the SNAP benefit card.
This really pisses you off, doesn’t it? Why? Well, because you are standing behind them at the checkout counter with only the basics in your cart: bread, milk, and toilet paper that has to hold you over until pay day. But it might give you a bit of solace to know that you are far from alone in believing that poor people should act and look, well, more poor.
For example, a Republican in Missouri recently proposed legislation that would prohibit those receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other government benefits from purchasing certain kinds of food. And to the rescue it was the award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow who decided to show SNAP critics what it is really like to be poor.
The following explores "Inequality in America”, featuring the haters, the beneficiaries and, of course, the simply ridiculous.
What would make everyone standing in line at the grocery store give you dirty looks? Just pull out a SNAP card to pay for your groceries.
“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs” with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, Missouri state representative Rick Brattin (R) explained to The Washington Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”
In February, Brattin introduced one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in decades, HB 813, which was also dubbed as the “surf-and-turf law” by The Washington Post. His goal was to make it illegal for food-stamp recipients to use their benefits “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.” Critics of Brattin’s new legislation say that his real intention was to “humiliate the poor”.
“Never mind that few can afford filet mignon on a less-than-$7/day food-stamp allotment; they’re more likely to be buying chuck steak or canned tuna,” The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank said in his Tuesday column. “This is less about public policy than about demeaning public-benefit recipients.”
But there are a lot of determined SNAP critics, according to The Washington Post, who seem to believe “this is what the poor actually buy with their meager aid that we’ve now seen a raft of bills and proposed state laws to nudge them away from so much excess.” Last week in Kansas, republican legislators passed House Bill 2258, which puts restrictions on cash withdrawals of benefits to $25 per day, and prohibits the use of benefits “in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, pari-mutuel facility, or sexually oriented business . . . or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”
Then there are the 12 states that have passed laws that require applicants to take a drug test in order to receive and maintain government benefits, and there are 12 others states that are currently considering similar legislation. In February, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced his state’s intention to introduce the drug testing mandates for welfare recipients or anyone applying for Medicaid, food stamps or unemployment insurance benefits. However, the law, introduced mostly by republicans, doesn’t seem to be working as expected. According to The Washington Post, more than 16,000 government assistance applicants were tested for drugs under Tennessee’s state law, and only 37 tested positive. Also, when the state of Florida began drug testing its applicants for government assistance in 2011, only 108 of 4,086 tested were found positive.
So, apparently the stereotype of the “drug addicted welfare junky” that inspires so much hatred is, in most cases, unsubstantiated. So, who are the other high-faulting poor people that the states are so determined to regulate?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, America’s official poverty rate in 2013 was 14.5 percent or 45.3 million people living at or below the poverty line for the third consecutive year.
The number of children receiving food stamps, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual Families and Living Arrangements, remains higher than it was before the start of the 2007 Recession. In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamps compared with the roughly nine million children, or one in eight, that received SNAP before the recession. So, who are their parents?
"I come from a town where all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ’welfare crazy checks,’" Gene Alday, a Republican member of the Mississippi state legislature, told The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper. "They don’t work."
Alday, however, was forced to apologize after learning that most of the people in the U.S. who receive SNAP benefits are actually white. According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, over 40 percent of SNAP recipients are white, only 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian, and 1.2 percent are Native American. And despite what SNAP critics like Alday might believe, some of the people receiving government benefits are hardworking Americans.
According to The Huffington Post, over 30 percent of SNAP recipients lived in a household where at least one member was actively employed in 2013. Different states, says the Huffington Post, have various eligibility rules for SNAP, but federal law puts the upper income limit at 200 percent of the poverty line, which is just $20,090 for a family of three. Many SNAP beneficiaries qualify based on their participation in other programs such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, says the Huffington Post, but it is not just the nation’s poor people who receive government benefits.
“In case you are still skeptical that many of the non-poor — and, in fact, a lot of the rich — receive benefits from government, too (for which we don’t make them pee in a cup or promise not to buy luxuries), we’ve rounded up some more examples below,” said The Washington Post reporters Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham.
Badger and Ingraham started by citing the mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes that provides tax breaks for the five million U.S. households earning over $200,000 a year, and who get a lot more housing aid than the 20 million households living on less than $20,000. There also are other forms of government assistance that the rich enjoy such as yachts, rental properties, gourmet business meals, and gambling loss deductions. In addition to the rich, there are the farmers who The Economist says is “milking taxpayers”. According to the Government Accountability Office, as reported by The Economist, between 2007 and 2011, the U.S. government paid some $3 million in subsidies to 2,300 farms where no crops were produced. And those American farm subsidies are pricey — costing taxpayers $20 billion a year. Most of the money goes to rich farmers who grow commodities such as corn and soybeans in states such as Iowa, says The Economist. But is the real issue just a matter of hypocrisy or a matter of ignorance?
It was just last week when Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she had accepted The Food Bank for New York City challenge to live on food stamps for one week with a grocery budget of $29. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a household of one can qualify for up to $194 dollars a month, or fewer than $7 dollars day, as part of SNAP.
So, how did the wealthy actress—born into a family considered Hollywood royalty—who probably never had to live on a budget much less ever had to worry about making food last for entire month show the rest of the world how to be poor? Well, it was simple: she used the $29 in SNAP benefits for brown rice, black beans, peas, eggs, tortillas, cilantro, limes, and fresh vegetables.
That is right, Paltrow; you certainly showed them. Good luck with making those tacos last for an entire month!