Americans Feel Strongly About How Poor People Should Spend Their Food Stamps

Americans Feel Strongly About How Poor People Should Spend Their Food Stamps

WASHINGTON -- More Americans are annoyed by the idea of food stamp recipients using their benefits to buy expensive food than their using them to buy junk food, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

According to the survey, 54 percent of Americans think people should not be allowed to use food stamps to buy expensive items such as crab legs, while only 32 percent said that they should be allowed to do so.

By contrast, respondents were split on allowing those on food stamps to buy junk food, like potato chips, candy and soda. Forty-five percent said they should be allowed to buy those items and 42 percent said they should not.

For decades, crab legs have been an icon of food stamp resentment. In June, after the House of Representatives voted down a bill Republicans deemed insufficiently conservative because its food stamp cuts weren't deep enough, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) spoke out on the House floor about a hardworking constituent who'd been in line behind someone using food stamps to buy crab legs. The man was heartbroken to realize "he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can't pay for them for himself," Gohmert said.

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has swelled to 47 million in the wake of the Great Recession, making the program a bigger target for Republicans than it's ever been. Outside of prohibitions on hot meals, alcohol, cigarettes and household products, there are few limits on the type of food SNAP benefits can buy.

HuffPost/YouGov poll respondents were more accepting of the thought of food stamp recipients buying whatever they want with their own money, including either junk food or big ticket food items. A 52 percent to 27 percent majority said it was acceptable for those receiving food stamps to buy expensive items with their own money, while a larger 63 percent to 22 percent majority said it was acceptable for them to buy candy, soda and potato chips with their own money.

Hannah Aldrich of Loma Rica, Calif., embodies many of the tensions in public opinion revealed by the poll. She said she and her husband and their three kids receive $668 a month in SNAP benefits.

Keenly aware that a lot of people have strong opinions about how food stamp recipients use their electronic benefit transfer cards, whenever she goes to the store Aldrich puts on nice clothes and makeup to mitigate judgmental looks from other shoppers.

"Just because we're on food stamps it doesn't necessarily mean we're all flip-flop wearing white trash bums," Aldrich said.

Aldrich and her husband are among the 30 percent of food stamp recipients who work, a proportion that's risen slowly but steadily over the past three decades. He's a motorcycle mechanic and salesman and she's a part-time home health care aide. They remain eligible for nutrition assistance because of low income and high expenses.

But cash register resentment's not reserved for the slovenly SNAP user -- people who look nice can get sideways glances, too. Last week, for instance, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) complained that he'd witnessed a physically fit couple buying groceries with food stamps. He called it "fraud."

Republicans and respondents age 65 and over in the HuffPost/YouGov poll were the most likely to support restrictions on both expensive items and junk food for SNAP purchases. Still, Democrats and younger respondents were also more likely than not to say purchases of expensive items should not be allowed.

Soon the House of Representatives will vote on a Republican bill to trim SNAP by $40 billion, or 5 percent, over the next 10 years. The measure will apply stricter income and asset tests, require more able-bodied adults to work, and give states incentives to reduce enrollment. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal D.C. think tank, says the measure will disproportionately harm recipients living in areas with high unemployment.

Poll respondents in the lowest income bracket in the poll -- those with a household income of less than $40,000 a year -- were about evenly divided on whether food stamps should be used to purchase expensive items, while saying that junk food purchases should be allowed by a 59 percent to 26 percent margin. Majorities of respondents in higher income brackets said that purchasing either junk food or expensive items should not be allowed.

Aldrich herself thinks some people misuse the program: "I see a lot of food stamp recipients, look in their shopping carts and it's Ho Hos and Ding Dongs and you go, 'My tax dollars are paying for this?' Even as a recipient myself I judge those people."

But Aldrich, 30, rejects the notion that she ought to use her benefits for beans and rice and nothing else. She said the benefits afford her family healthier food -- free range chicken, for instance -- than what they'd get on their meager salaries.

"We don't use our food stamps to buy filet mignon and lobster," Aldrich said. "I've seen people out there who choose to use food stamps that way but I think the whole goal of food stamps is to be eating as well as you can on a low budget."

The new HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Aug. 12-13 among 1,000 adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling.

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