News Law and Policy

Wisconsin GOP: Restrict Food Stamp Recipients’ Choices

Nina Liss-Schultz

Many low-income Wisconsinites might no longer be able to purchase lobster or shrimp, and may be subject to drug testing and forced substance abuse rehabilitation programs, under two bills introduced in the GOP-majority state assembly this month.

Many low-income Wisconsinites might no longer be able to purchase lobster or shrimp, and may be subject to drug testing and forced substance abuse rehabilitation programs, under two bills introduced in the GOP-majority state assembly this month.

Recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called FoodShare in Wisconsin, already face obstacles in putting meals on the table for themselves and their families. The state Department of Health Services published a 16-page brochure detailing what people can and cannot buy with their food stamps, touching on everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, beans, cereals, and infant formulas.

Those restrictions are included in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) food supplement program, and apply to Wisconsin’s FoodShare program under the state Republicans’ proposed law. Sixty-seven percent of FoodShare benefits would have to be spent on food.

The regulations are specific: recipients can purchase most fruits and vegetables, but not potatoes. They can buy cans of mature beans only, and can’t choose anything immature or dried and sold in bulk. They can only purchase juice that is bottled in 48 or 64-ounce plastic containers and is not refrigerated. Recipients can’t buy white or any kind of organic rice. They can’t buy canned soup or spaghetti sauce.

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AB 177, which received its first committee hearing last week, would ban people from using SNAP benefits to buy all shellfish, and would require that the first two-thirds of those benefits be spent toward the food listed in the DHS brochure, as well as a short list of additional food items.

The department would enforce the two-thirds requirement by asking cashiers to swipe food stamp cards before checking out recipients for their items.

Officials from the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force said the proposal would create “a ‘grocery nanny system’ restricting the freedom of food choice for families, regardless of health or cultural needs.”

Wisconsin had an average of more than 420,000 households participating in SNAP during 2014. That same year, a typical SNAP recipient in Wisconsin received around $220 in benefits, slightly under the national average.

A second bill, which also received a public hearing last week, would force certain food stamp recipients who test positive for drug use to undergo treatment or be denied benefits.

AB 191 would build on a Wisconsin law, passed in 2013 by GOP Gov. Scott Walker and state Republicans, that allows the state to require able-bodied adults to participate in job training programs in order to qualify for food stamps. The bill moving through the legislature this session would require that childless adults forced to participate in job training also submit to drug testing and, if the results are positive, to be entered into a treatment program.

Walker’s office did not return a request for an interview from Rewire.

Assembly bills 177 and 191 are just the latest example of Republican-led state legislatures advocating for laws that limit the decision-making abilities of low-income people and subjecting them to drug-testing programs that have proven to be largely ineffective and very expensive.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in April signed a bill that limits welfare recipients to a maximum ATM withdrawal of $25 per day, and does not exempt ATM fees from the cap. The law prohibits recipients from using benefits out of state and on a long list of so-called luxury items such as visits to swimming pools, movie theaters, nail salons, and liquor stores.

Maine’s Republican-dominated legislature is poised to pass a ban on the use of food stamps toward certain types of “unhealthy” food, including packaged deli meats, spaghetti sauce, pickles, seltzer, and dietary supplements.

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