Steak, Lobster, and Other Myths About Food Stamps

Last month, New York state Senator Patty Ritchie introduced a bill that bans “luxury” foods, such as steak and lobster, as well as junk food like soda, ice cream, candy, cookies, and decorated cakes, from the grocery lists of people who receive benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

And it’s not the only bill of its kind. Last year, state legislators in Missouri and Wisconsin pushed bills restricting which foods can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

But here’s the thing: Are people on SNAP, who receive an average benefit of $126 a month per person, really spending big government bucks on filet mignon?

In a word: No.

On average, households poor enough to qualify for SNAP spend about $25 a month on beef and seafood, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2014, which tracks grocery spending in households by income. That’s out of a monthly grocery budget of $244, which means beef and seafood make up about 10 percent of a poor households’ grocery bill. Fresh fruits and vegetables, by the way, together average about $30 a month. (For the record, SNAP recipients can’t use their benefits to buy alcohol, tobacco, pet food, soap, vitamins, or hot food.)

Meanwhile, the country’s wealthiest households spend an average of $538 a month on groceries, including $45 a month on that beef and seafood. Their spending on fresh produce is higher, too: $77.

As for what SNAP recipients actually eat, rather than how their grocery bills stack up, most eat a little worse than other low-income Americans. A 2014 American Journal of Preventive Medicine review of studies concerning SNAP dietary quality found that the program’s clients had slightly poorer diets than low-income families not using the program—and noticeably less healthy diets than the wealthy. (It’s worth noting, though, that all Americans’ diets are pretty shoddy.)

A new study suggests why SNAP clients’ diets—which are neither expensive nor much worse than other poor people’s—inspire so much scrutiny.

In the April issue of Journal of Consumer Research, a survey of 1,300 Americans found we consistently use “a double standard where people are judged differently for making identical choices, depending on where their money comes from,” says study author Darren Dahl in a press release. One example: buying organic is seen as virtuous—unless the person is using government benefits to buy it. In fact, we’re so judgy that researchers found we’re less likely to donate to a charity if it’s serving organic food.

That echoes the sentiment of Missouri State Senator Rick Brattin, who sponsored that state’s bill limiting what SNAP clients can buy. Last April, he told the Washington Post that he’d seen people buying filet mignon and crab. “When I can’t afford it on my pay,” he said, “I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

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