Rick Brattin, a young Republican state representative in Missouri, has come up with an innovative new way to humiliate the poor in his state. Call it the surf-and-turf law.
Brattin has introduced House Bill 813, making it illegal for food-stamp recipients to use their benefits “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”
“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs” with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, the legislator explained, according 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.”
Never mind that few can afford filet mignon on a less-than-$7-a-day food-stamp allotment; they’re more likely to be buying chuck steak or canned tuna. This is less about public policy than about demeaning public-benefit recipients.
The surf-and-turf bill is one of a flurry of legislative proposals at the state and local level to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor as the country deals with the high-poverty hangover of the Great Recession.
Last week, the Kansas Legislature passed House Bill 2258, punishing the poor by limiting their cash withdrawals of welfare benefits to $25 per day and forbidding them to use their 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.”
The Kansas legislators must be pleased that they have protected their swimming pools from welfare recipients. But the gratuitous nature of the law becomes obvious when you consider that it also bans all out-of-state spending of welfare dollars — so the inclusion of a cruise-ship ban is redundant in landlocked Kansas.
The Topeka Capital-Journal quoted a champion of the bill saying “this is about having a great life.” And the law is helping the poor have a “great life” by forbidding Kansas from accepting hardship waivers from the federal government that extend time limits for food-stamp recipients — reminiscent of many states’ refusal to accept an expansion of Medicaid that was funded by the federal government.
Numerous laws that have bubbled up across the country in the last few years have imposed punitive new conditions on the poor. Many are from Republican states opposed to big government, but not entirely: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, another state that prohibits welfare funds for cruise ships is true-blue Massachusetts (though it at least touches the ocean.)
In their budget plans in Congress, Republicans propose “devolving” food stamps and other programs to state control by awarding block grants with few strings attached. The states, the thinking goes, are closer to the people and have better ideas about how to reduce caseloads. But recent experience suggests that one strategy for reducing caseloads is to harass recipients:
Some states have been hiking legal fees for poor defendants — in Washington state, the American Civil Liberties Union has found, such obligations average $2,540 per case — and sometimes imprisoning them for their inability to pay. An NPR study last year found that defendants are routinely charged for public defenders, room and board in jail, parole supervision and electronic monitoring devices — items that were once free.
The federal government required in 2012 that electronic benefit transfer cards not be used for liquor, gambling or adult-entertainment, but many states went further. Massachusetts and Missouri require the EBT cards to have the beneficiary’s photo, according to the NCSL, while others block the use of benefits for “psychic services,” “riverboats,” “permanent makeup” and “amusement parks.”
NCSL also reports that 12 states, most in the South, have passed legislation in the last three years requiring drug testing for public-assistance applicants.
And what if all these new costs for the poor put them out on the street? The National Law Center on Homelessness &Poverty last year reported a 60 percent increase since 2011 in city-wide bans on public camping and a 43 percent increase in prohibitions on sitting or lying down in public places.
Even then, poor people can still stay on the right side of this new round of punitive laws, as long as they don’t sleep, keep moving at all times — and lay off the steak and fish.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.