Should welfare recipients be banned from buying steak and lobster?

A New York lawmaker introduced a bill that would restrict food stamp recipients from purchasing 'luxury' and unhealthy products using public benefits. 

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Outback Steakhouse Celebrates the Season with Great Steak Combinations.

Citing the growing rates of obesity, one New York lawmaker has introduced a state bill that would prohibit welfare recipients from using food stamps to purchase “luxury” items.

Introduced by Sen. Patty Ritchie (R), the legislation, if passed, will prohibit participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from using their food stamps to purchase an assortment of products, including what Ms. Ritchie considers “luxury food items” as well as those deemed unhealthy.

“At a time when our state and nation are struggling with an obesity epidemic, it is critically important that taxpayer funded programs help low income consumers make wise and healthy food choices,” the legislation memo reads.

“The purpose of SNAP is to promote good nutrition, but current rules allow the purchase of junk food and luxury items like high-end steaks and lobster Even certain energy drinks, which are subject to sales tax, can be purchased using taxpayer funded benefit cards.”

In New York, SNAP recipients are already restricted from buying alcohol, cigarettes, hot or prepared foods, and pet food. The new legislation calls for a longer list of non-essential items that would be written out by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

"Many of these items aren't just unhealthy," said Ritchie in a press release announcing the legislation. "They're also expensive."

So far, the bill has been met with opposition from Democrats, who control the assembly and will likely reject it if it reaches the floor. Similar measures have contemplated by multiple states, including Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. Last April, Kansas signed into law an “exhaustive” list of restrictions for residents who benefit from cash assistance.

Advocates for the poor have also spoken out against food stamp constraints, arguing that such policy isn’t fair to people living below the poverty line and rely on state assistance.

Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director of Vocal New York, a group that advocates for low-income New Yorkers, told the Lower Hudson Valley Journal News that the bill is "ridiculous."

"Our food-stamp system is set up for people that do not have enough access to food to be able to get food," he said. "This is a Republican attempt to make it appear that poor people use tax dollars to buy steak and lobster."

As reported by The Washington Post’s Peter Holley, New York has the 12th lowest adult obesity rate across the country, according to an annual obesity report produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Between 2000 and 2014, however, the rate has increased by nearly 10 percent.

But not all experts agree that eating seafood and steak are harmful. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that the consumption of lean beef may offer dietary benefits. And foods like lobster and shrimp are high in protein and contain very little saturated fat.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, policies that restrict food stamp benefits would be difficult, ineffective, and expensive.

“The task of identifying, evaluating, and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial,” a 2007 USDA report reads, concluding that food stamp recipients “are no more likely than higher income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value.”

In other words, when the USDA looked at this a decade ago, there was little evidence that those who rely on public assistance for food are any more likely to make purchases with low nutritional value than everyone else.

If the goal is to encourage "better" diets, the USDA says, incentive-based solutions would be much more effective. The farmers’ market pilot program, for instance, encourages SNAP participants to eat fresh produce by doubling the worth of food stamps spent at farmers’ markets.

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