Chew on This: Should Food Stamp Recipients Have Their Shopping Lists Limited?

Someone may soon have to teach people on welfare in Missouri how to fish because they may not be able to get a fish to eat for a day, if all they have in a wallet is food stamps.

Their peers in Kansas may also have new restrictions on what they can buy with food stamps, along with a prohibition on spending their federal assistance money on fun things like psychics, tattoos, or cruise ships — if one should ever dock in Kansas.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has followed suit with his peers in Kansas and Missouri. Page has re-introduced a proposal — which Democrats were able to water down a year ago to the constituency of the gruel served to Oliver Twist in the last legislative session — to slap new restrictions on welfare recipients.

The impact of restrictions on the food welfare recipients can buy with their government benefits, beyond making taxpayers feel better, has never been determined. However, an independent study of the impact of food restrictions on low-income families is underway.

Depending on the results, it could give opponents or proponents new ammunition.

But at least three states — Maine, Missouri, and Kansas — seem destined for tighter restrictions without that information. They are also doing what the federal government has refused to do in the past.

Missouri Rep. Rick Brattin not only wants to stop food stampers in his state from buying seafood – the Republican would outlaw the purchase of energy drinks, soda, cookies, chips and steak with federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) money.

This would not be the first time the Missouri Legislature has tightened regulations on what could or could not be purchased with food stamps and other federal money.

In 2013, Missouri lawmakers banned the practice of withdrawing welfare money from ATMs in casinos and strip clubs or spending the money in those establishments.

The ATM legislation came two years after Missouri lawmakers passed a bill that forced everyone applying for federal assistance to submit to a drug test.

Maine Gov. LePage has introduced a comprehensive welfare reform bill that combines elements of welfare reform legislation he previously put before the legislature with a new initiative.

“We will only move Mainers from poverty to prosperity if we are willing to bring accountability to the welfare system and create an expectation of work among those who are on it,” said LePage. “This legislation is about a fundamental culture shift in Maine’s economy and government — one that is underway, but is not yet complete.”

The proposal, among other things, would prohibit Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program recipients from using government money to pay for “tobacco, liquor, imitation liquor, gambling, lottery tickets, tattoos, and bail.”

Elements of the bill were introduced by LePage and Republican lawmakers in 2014 but were killed by majority Democratic lawmakers. Others planks in the LePage proposal, including changes to the Alternative Aid program, strengthened sanctions for violations, and the prohibition of the purchase of tattoos with TANF funds, are new proposals this year.

One Maine Democrat said his party would be willing to consider a new plan, after effectively squelching LePage’s last proposal, as long as the new ideas were fresh — following our food theme — and not a “regurgitation” of last year’s effort.

The Kansas Legislature has approved a proposal that would limit the amount of money a welfare recipient could withdraw from an ATM every day to just $25.

Opponents argued that created an unfair hardship. They pointed out most people on welfare don’t have bank accounts, so they have to withdraw hundreds of dollars at at time to pay their rent.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients in Kansas would also not be allowed to withdraw money from ATMs or spend that money in movie theaters, nail salons, pools and spas, liquor stores, jewelry stores, casinos or racing facilities, tattoo and piercing parlors, or cruise ships.

Of course there are not many cruise ships docked in Kansas, but Democrats argued prohibiting the use of ATMs at the other locations would be a hardship because most TANF recipients don’t have bank accounts.

The legislation would also stop TANF recipients from spending government money on alcohol, cigarettes, concert tickets, psychics or fortune tellers, and theme park tickets.

It would be a mistake to assume politicians who want to placate constituents angered by tax dollars spent on welfare, or those who want to punish welfare recipients, are alone in pushing for new welfare-food regulations.

Health and nutrition experts have consistently called for federal prohibitions on spending SNAP or TANF money on sugary soft drinks or food with little nutritional value.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has always rejected those proposals, citing a lack of scientific evidence proving those restrictions would benefit SNAP recipients.

That could change later this year. Those who want to impose stricter regulations on food and beverages purchased with food stamps may soon be able to cite scientific as well as political reasons for their beliefs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which describes itself as the largest philanthropic organization in the nation dedicated solely to health, is in the final stages of a study of the impact of imposing food regulations on welfare recipients.

The study began in February 2014 and is scheduled to end in July.

Researchers are studying SNAP-eligible, low-income households in an effort to figure out the impact of food regulations and whether there are any better policy options.

The Research Triangle Institute, in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, is paying for the study.