A proposal to bar Mainers from using food assistance benefits to buy products with “little to no nutritional value” is nothing more than a renewed attempt by the LePage administration to shame and punish the poor — under the guise of fiscal responsibility and the unfounded notion that people who rely on food assistance are incapable of making good choices without the paternalistic guidance of legislators.

Of course, we know that L.D. 526 really has nothing to do with saving taxpayers money or improving the lives of poor people, since Gov. Paul LePage has had no qualms about taking from hardworking Mainers to give tax breaks to the wealthiest residents and corporations.

LePage’s efforts are part of a larger national trend of imposing often arbitrary restrictions on who is eligible for food assistance, on the monetary value of those benefits and on what items recipients are permitted to purchase. Across the country, legislators have proposed bills limiting what can be purchased with electronic benefit transfer cards; in Missouri, one lawmaker wants to make it illegal for recipients “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

While there is little nutritional value in most of the items on that list, preventing beneficiaries from purchasing nutritious food such as fish is not about health. It’s about punishment — the idea that the poor simply don’t deserve nice things.

Last year, the LePage administration released a report that was intended to provide evidence of rampant fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. However, it was clear that the methodology of this study was seriously flawed, and the data being used to support claims of systemic abuse were incomplete and inconclusive at best.

In light of the report’s findings, I decided to conduct my own analysis, and what I discovered was troubling to say the least. Actually, it was infuriating.

When I downloaded the data, what I found was a slapdash spreadsheet listing businesses where the use of EBT cards for the purchase of prohibited items (such as alcohol and cigarettes) supposedly took place and the number of transactions conducted at those establishments.

This report was to be the smoking gun, all the proof the governor needed to bolster his oft-repeated claims of widespread fraud. However, the data used to support this administration’s inflammatory rhetoric contained significant omissions.

Most notably, the list included the “transaction count” for each vendor represented, but it did not include the amount of money spent or the items purchased. Given the way the data were presented, there was — quite literally — no way for the LePage administration or the public to determine the scale or scope of EBT abuse.

To name one example, 586 EBT transactions were recorded at Joe’s Smoke Shop (now Joe’s Super Variety) in Portland from 2011 to 2014. Surely this was a damning indictment of a system run amok, right?

Not quite. In addition to selling tobacco and cigarettes, Joe’s sells groceries and food staples such as flour, soup and bread — products that SNAP beneficiaries are legally permitted to purchase. And without reliable transportation, often with erratic work schedules and inadequate child care, many of our state’s impoverished residents have to rely on downtown shops such as Joe’s for their basic needs.

Since LePage took office five years ago, roughly 9,000 Mainers have lost access to nutrition assistance because of their real or perceived ineligibility. Now the governor is at it again.

Only this time he is not just taking aim at welfare abusers, and those he deems undeserving of benefits. He is also seeking to prevent SNAP beneficiaries from purchasing, according to the language of the bill, “food items that are otherwise subject to the state sales tax and for bulk purchases of grocery staples that, if purchased in smaller quantities, would be considered prepared food and therefore would be subject to the state sales tax.”

Included among these items are spaghetti sauce, pickles and deli meat. But placing further limits on what food stamp recipients can purchase with EBT cards is unlikely to radically change the diets of poor people. What it will do is further stigmatize poverty, mean more arbitrary hoops to jump through and reinforce the idea that poor people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.

It is unlikely that the waiver of SNAP policy requested by the LePage administration will be granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but this bill stands as another example of the kind of punitive, poorly informed policy that has been the hallmark of LePage’s tenure in office.

Sarah Rawlings of Portland received a master’s degree in public policy, with a concentration in policy analysis, from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in 2010.

filed under: