Supposedly prompted by a young surfer who bragged that he bought lobster with food stamps, several state legislatures have initiated bills to limit food stamp purchases to foods with beneficial nutritional value. Along with similar actions in Missouri, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, Delaware
Republican members of the General Assembly have sponsored such a bill, HB 94, reintroduced from a previous session.
Despite its ostensible benefits, this legislation deserves prompt depositing in the nearest sanitary receptacle.
The synopsis accompanying HB 94 states that the proposed law “will not only improve the efficiency of such expenditures but it should also improve the well-being of recipients, as well as potentially reduce health care expenditures.”
Both of these arguments are fallacious. First, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, mandating certain food purchases will increase program complexity and costs, particularly in the areas of tracking and record-keeping. Second, there is no credible evidence showing that food stamp recipients suffer from diets that are any worse than non-recipients.
For the Delaware Nutritional Improvement Act (HB 94’s formal title) to be enacted, it would not only have to be passed by both chambers of the Delaware General Assembly and signed by Gov. Jack Markell, but likewise would require a waiver from the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. That is because although states run the food stamp program, it is funded by the federal government.
In the current environment, it does not appear as if the waiver will be approved, nor should it be. The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 already defines eligible foods available with the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), together with prohibited purchases. The items in the latter category encompass alcohol or tobacco products, hot food, food which is eaten in the store and pet food, among other items. Since the definition of food is a specific part of the act, any change would have to be approved by Congress.
Coming up with an agreed-upon list of only “healthy” foods is an impossible task, one reason why the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services opposes the proposal.
There are other points working against this idea. For one, experts worry about whether food stamp recipients will have access to stores with the types of approved nutritional foods which the bill requires. Further, HB 94 and similar legislation elsewhere are exceptions to the prevailing federalism trend in favor of states in intergovernmental disputes. Accordingly, U.S. Supreme Court rulings like those in Maine v. Taylor (1981) and U.S. v. Lopez (1995), which could be used to defend states’ rights, are useless in the present context.
Delaware Republicans have made great strides since the 2010 election debacle. There are many examples of positive developments for the party and its followers. Unfortunately, the entirely partisan backing of HB 94 is not one of them. While everyone is concerned with waste, fraud and abuse, restricting choices with food stamp purchases does more to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the GOP than to save taxpayer funds or demonstrate genuine concern with the health of recipients.
The 151,000-plus persons in Delaware whose lives depend on SNAP deserve better.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. A resident of Dover for 26 years, he has taught and published extensively on constitutional-law issues.