Food Stamp Recipients in Wisconsin Just Took A Huge Blow

May 14th 2015

Sarah Gray

Wisconsin inched one step closer to enacting tighter controls over what food stamp recipients can purchase with their benefits. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin state Assembly passed bills that would further criminalize the poor, including banning food stamp recipients from buying lobster and other shellfish, and implementing drug screenings.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program:

In 2014, around 420,000 families received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps or FoodShare in Wisconsin. In the United States as a whole there are 46 million people who rely on SNAP benefits. (And sometimes SNAP benefits are not enough. In December of 2013, Diane Riley the director of advocacy at Community FoodBank of New Jersey, told me that many recipients of SNAP in her state run out of food by the second or third week of the month.)

The Wisconsin Bill:

The Wisconsin measure, which was passed by the Assembly, would ban SNAP benefit recipients from purchasing lobster, crab, shrimp and other shellfish, and it would require benefit recipients to use two-thirds of their dollars on specific items listed in the bill, leaving one third of dollars free for non-specified items.

"Under this bill, DHS must require that not less than 67 percent of the SNAP benefits used by a recipient in a month be used to purchase any of the following foods: foods that are on the list of foods authorized for the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC foods); beef; pork; chicken; fish; fresh produce; and fresh, frozen, and canned white potatoes."

In 2014 households with FoodShare received an average of $220 in benefits per month. The consequence of the bill's two-thirds rule is, using the 2014 figures, $145 per month would be spent on the above items, and only $75 could be spent on extraneous items. This makes it increasingly difficult for low-income families, who rely on benefits to purchase food, to buy some items including spices, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, nuts, bulk dried beans, red and yellow potatoes, and other items. (Not to mention that with only $220 to spend on food for an entire month, not many can afford to purchase lobster, crab or other luxury food items.)


The goal of this bill, according to lawmakers, is to promote healthier eating by limiting the amount of junk food that can be purchased with government benefits.

"With help from the government comes responsibility," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a news conference this weekOther states including Missouri and Maine have proposed similar bills banning certain items from being purchased with SNAP benefit dollars.

Critics of the bill:

Earlier in May, state Rep. Evan Goyke (D) spoke forcefully against the bill. Wednesday's vote was mostly along party lines with all Democrats plus two Republicans voting against the measure.

Goyke pointed out that many recipients are under the age of 18 or are elderly and disabled. According to the anti-poverty non-profit organization Couleecap, 42 percent of recipients are minors, and 20 percent are elderly, blind, or disabled. "Children, age four and under has the largest number for any age grouping making up 13 percent of recipients," the organization states in a 2014 release. "50 percent of the recipients are 23 and younger."

"[The bill] is seeking to legislate the urban myths in our society," Goyke said according to WSAU News. “It’s the fear that somebody on food stamps is buying steak and lobster and champagne, and it’s just not true."

And while combating the obesity epidemic in low-income families is important, ATTN: has pointed out there are better ways of promoting healthy eating than limiting the type of food that can be consumed.

Will this bill become law?

The bill still has several hurdles to clear before it becomes law. The food stamp restriction bill must pass in the Wisconsin state Senate, where similar proposals have been rejected. Lawmakers must also figure out how to fund the estimated $55 million for a grocery store software system that would measure out the two-thirds vs. one-third food declinations.

Since SNAP is federally-funded, Wisconsin is also required to apply for a waiver to enact the junk food restrictions and other SNAP benefit bans. Thus far no state has managed to acquire this kind of waiver, according to the Chicago Tribune.

What about the drug testing?

Along with the food stamp restriction bill, the Wisconsin state Assembly passed two bills that pertain to drug screening. The first would require those applying for state job training programs to submit to drug testing, and the second would require some state benefit recipients to be drug tested. According to the Chicago Tribune, these measures are similar to what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his budget this year.

Beyond being a way of criminalizing the poor, ATTN: has previous explained why it is a "waste of time and money." Tennessee has a similar law to the one that Walker proposed, requiring suspected drug users to submit to drug screenings to receive benefits. Earlier this year a mere 37 of 16,107 of suspected drug users in Tennessee tested positive. This falls in line with other data from 2011, which found that only 3.6 percent of welfare recipients used or were addicted to illegal drugs.

So why do lawmakers keep trying to pass these laws? My colleague Mike Vainisi wrote the following in January of this year -- and the sentiment still holds true:

So if this is just a whole big nothing, why do politicians suggest it? Because it's a cheap, cynical way to score political points and act like a guardian of taxpayer dollars -- even though drug tests are a huge waste of money. And it does nothing to fix real drug addiction.

“If Governor Scott Walker cared about families in his state, his first response would be to ensure that people who struggle with problematic drug use are able to receive treatment on demand and the help they need to live a healthy and productive lifestyle,” a spokeswoman for the Drug Policy Alliance said to ThinkProgress. “Drug testing families and individuals struggling to make ends meet is uncaring, uncompassionate and unconstitutional.”