The ‘Steak and Lobster’ Food-Stamp Myth Refuses to Die

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Surf and Turf
No surf, no turf.Photo: pjohnson1

The concept of the food-stamp queen was first proffered by Ronald Reagan during a 1976 campaign speech. “In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” he told the assembled crowd. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” Reagan’s story turned out to be a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud, but since their patron saint conjured her up, conservatives have been unable to rid themselves of the image of the food-stamp queen. And despite her nonexistence, they’ve tried over and over again to stamp her out.

Their latest attempt takes the form of a bill introduced by New York senator Patty Ritchie designed to keep people from using New York’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to buy things like expensive steaks, lobster, decorated cakes, or energy drinks. “The goal of this legislation is to improve dietary quality and reduce obesity,” as well as to “restrict the abuse of the program,” reads the bill’s memo.

Even if it passes the Democratic-controlled senate, the bill is unlikely to accomplish either goal. According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “no evidence exists which indicates that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices and negative dietary outcomes, such as obesity.” The majority of food-stamp recipients still buy a portion of their food with their own money, with which they can make as many unrestricted choices as they want.

The Republican fear of “abuse” of food stamps to purchase “luxury items” is founded on a decades-old and highly unrealistic stigma. Last April, when Missouri politicians introduced a similar bill, Representative Rick Brattin told the Washington Post, “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] cards. When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to.” Similar outrage flared up in Kansas when a bill was introduced to limit “a long list of items, including alcohol, cigarettes, concert tickets, theme park tickets, or cruises,” and in Wisconsin, where another aimed to strike “crab, lobster, shrimp, and any other shell fish” from the list of available foods. Yet in studies of the diets of people on food stamps, they’re shown to eat less seafood than the rest of us, and about the same amount of beef. (How they would buy cruise tickets with their benefits is unclear.)

It’s seeking to legislate urban myths in our society,” Milwaukee representative Evan Goyke told WSAU when Wisconsin’s bill was in the spotlight. “Forty-one percent of the people who receive food stamps are under the age of 18, and the next largest chunk are the elderly. And they’re not eating lobster; they’re struggling to get by.”