Missouri Republicans To The Poor: No More Lobster Or Adult Films

The Missouri State Legislature is sounding a simple but increasingly loud message to the poorest of their constituents: No more lobster or adult films.

Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin (R) has proposed a bill that seeks to limit what recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — commonly referred to as food stamps — are able to purchase with their benefits. House Bill 813 attempts to prohibit SNAP recipients from purchasing fish, steak, soda, cookies, chips and energy drinks.

An easy case could be made for prohibiting the purchase of such food items as cookies and chips — or junk food, in general — as those items provide very little actual nutrition, which is the whole purpose of the SNAP program. Nutrition experts have been exploring the possibility of removing such items from the approved list of what SNAP recipients can purchase for awhile.

But the newly proposed legislation in Missouri is receiving criticisms for its elimination of seafood and steak, claiming that House Bill 813 is simply another attempt to further the stereotype that many receiving benefits are abusing the system.

The St. Louis Dispatch editorial board was quick to sound off against Missouri’s Republican-controlled state legislature for their consistent usage of negative stigmas surrounding people who rely on government assistance.

“Among many, if not most, Republican lawmakers in Missouri, it is an article of faith that people on ‘welfare’ are lazy good-for-nothings who prefer to sit on the sofa watching TV, eating steak, gawking at pornography and soaking up fabulous government benefits instead of hauling their able bodies to work. The facts behind poverty in Missouri belie this notion, but never mind! Why let facts get in the way when stereotypes are so much easier?”

The new bill doesn’t take just luxury items such as filet mignon and lobster off the menu for Missouri SNAP recipients — it eliminates such items as tuna fish, fish sticks, and cheaper cuts of beef, such as flank steak.

Mark Rank, Washington University professor and author of Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America, wonders why a bill would seek to eliminate nutritious food, in an interview with the Washington Post. “Fish is good for you — why should that be prohibited?” He questions the intent behind the bill.

“It just seems really repressive. I don’t see how it makes any sense to ban some of these foods. Fish is something that should really be in your diet. And steak, what does that mean in this context?”

Rank, and many others, believe that bills like HB 813 are written because of the belief that many recipients of assistance use their benefits to live beyond their means, despite the fact that abuses within the system are actually uncommon, and, as Rank explains, usually the very opposite is true.

“There are some isolated cases of abuse, sure. But they are hardly representative of what the people struggling to get by on SNAP are actually buying…These people are spending their money extremely frugally.”

In the State of Missouri, the average SNAP benefit is $1.30 per meal, per person. The state also has a significantly higher than average rate of people who experience food insecurity, and nearly half a million citizens living in “extreme poverty,” defined as 50 percent or less than the Federal Poverty Level, which is $24,250 for a family of four. Many argue that those type of statistics leave very little room for lobster and pornography purchases for Missouri families receiving government assistance.

But poor people purchasing pornography is an actual concern for Republican legislators in Missouri, because alongside House Bill 813 is House Bill 977, sponsored by Rep. J. Eggleston (R), which, as the bill itself states, “adds pornography to the list of items that are prohibited from being purchased with TANF or SNAP benefits using an EBT card.” The editorial board at the St. Louis Dispatch had scathing remarks about that bill, as well.

“Rep. J. (he just uses the initial) Eggleston, R-Maysville, makes it clear that you can’t use an electronic benefits card to buy pornography. Not that anyone is known to have done so, or that there’s any pornography available free on the Internet, but you can’t be too careful.”

SNAP and TANF recipients have long been the focus of reporting, with stories like that of a man who admitted on air during an interview with Fox News that he used his government benefits to purchase lobster and sushi while spending his days surfing rather than working. But those cases are actually small in number, Rank explains.

“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.”

Supporters of the bill, however, believe that abuse of the system is rampant, and that curtailing the purchase of luxury food items is necessary, even if the language in the bill also eliminates affordable, nutritious choices like tuna. “My intention wasn’t to get rid of canned tuna and fish sticks,” Rep. Brattin of Missouri says. But he also insists that abuse is systematic and problematic, and that it needs to be stopped, even if it results in the exclusion of other foods.

This isn’t the first time that Rep. Brattin’s proposed legislation have come under scrutiny. For more on some of the Missouri lawmaker’s controversial bills, click here.

[Image credit: Keystone Hulton Archive / Getty Images]