Fox News has spent years pushing the myth that food stamp recipients dine on steak and lobster with their meager food assistance benefits, leading to a string of Republican-sponsored bills attempting to bar recipients from buying certain “luxury food items,” the latest of which comes out of the New York state Senate.
The Washington Post reported on February 23 that New York state Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-48) introduced a bill to restrict the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits -- commonly referred to as “food stamps” -- that closely resembled Republican proposals in Kansas and Missouri last year. The bill seeks to stop the purchase of "luxury food items," such as steak and lobster, with SNAP benefits. Ritchie claimed in a statement that the bill is intended to “protect taxpayers from abuse of a program that's intended to help those who have fallen on hard times.” From The Washington Post:
If the bill introduced by Sen. Patty Ritchie passes, families participating in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would be restricted from purchasing “luxury food items” like steak and lobster.
The proposal falls in line with a decades-old conservative fear that people use government assistance to purchase high-end foods. A strikingly similar proposal popped up last year in Missouri ... and another was signed into law by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in April.
“The goal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to help low-income consumers make wise and healthy food choices -- however in New York State, SNAP beneficiaries are able to use their taxpayer-funded EBT cards to purchase things like soda, candy, cake and other types of junk food and luxury items,” the statement [from Sen. Ritchie's office] says, referring to electronic benefit transfer cards.
The state of New York already restricts SNAP benefits to unprepared foods -- prohibiting non-essential items including alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, and other non-food items -- but Ritchie's bill would go further, banning foods that are deemed “expensive.” The Huffington Post, New York magazine, and others pointed out that the food stamp restriction is really meant to stop recipients from purchasing “steak and lobster” -- a mythical abuse of taxpayer dollars promoted by Fox News.
On August 9, 2013, Fox News aired an hour-long special titled “The Great Food Stamp Binge,” highlighting a single Californian named Jason Greenslate, whom the network labeled “the new face of food stamps.” During the special, Greenslate detailed his refusal to find gainful employment and discussed his purchases of sushi and lobster using his EBT card from the state. Fox distributed the special, which shamelessly misrepresented millions of struggling Americans who rely on nutritional assistance, to Republican members of Congress during heated budget debates, and the GOP responded by voting for massive cuts to SNAP.
Fox's shameless attempt to characterize SNAP recipients as freeloaders did not stop with the Republican-led budget cuts in 2013. In April 2014, Fox host Neil Cavuto and network legal analyst Andrew Napolitano hyped a single instance of fraud, a couple receiving SNAP benefits while living on a $1.2 million yacht, Napolitano implied the government “willy nilly gives this money away without verifying who's receiving it.” In reality, SNAP achieved a historic low for waste and overpayment in 2012. In early 2015, Republican lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri introduced bills seemingly inspired by Fox News restricting how much money food stamp and welfare recipients could spend and what they could purchase, specifically prohibiting “steak, seafood, soda, cookies, chip[s], and energy drinks.” In May 2015, during a House Committee on Agriculture hearing, Republican members of Congress pushed for additional SNAP cuts and restrictions by repeatedly referencing the “surfer out in California living on food stamps and eating lobster” as evidence of food stamp abuse.
Fox's narrative that millionaires are receiving benefits and surfer dudes are dining on lobster at taxpayer expense is directed at curbing access to food assistance for low-income Americans, and Republican elected officials continue to oblige. Republican leaders including Paul Ryan are attempting to refurbish their party's reputation on poverty, but they continue promoting policies based on right-wing media myths that actually harm the poor -- a fact not lost on the American public.