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Phillips: For those who truly need it
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I read with great interest last week news reports about a lawmaker in Missouri proposing tighter restrictions on what food products would be allowed to be purchased using an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. The EBT card is the modern-day equivalent of what is commonly called “food stamps,” and is a government-provided program for people of lower income to acquire food. EBT cards have a benefit amount credited to them each month and at the store function the same as a debit or credit card.

Missouri State Rep. Rick Brattin said he wants certain “luxury” food items to be excluded from eligibility for the EBT program. The stories I saw listed such things as soft drinks, candy and cookies, although ingredients needed to make cookies at home would still be allowed. Other items, including expensive cuts of meat and high-end seafood were also part of the discussion. Brattin said when the EBT program covers all food, regardless of its nutritional value or cost, recipients have far less motivation to find work, or better-paying work, and get themselves off the system. Makes perfect sense to me.

As always, there has been a lot of lively banter on the internet on this subject. Supporters of Brattin’s proposal say EBT should be restricted so only nutritious, “staple” food would be allowed. Detractors say benefit recipients should be able to use their monthly allotment on anything they want to, just as if it were a paycheck.

Some who are on the program feel like they are being wrongly criticized and tell their stories online of how they got sick, lost their job, unemployment benefits ran out and they had to turn to government assistance to survive. My headline today is “for those who truly need it” and those are the folks I’m talking about. Some people simply have no other choice, due to circumstances that have been beyond their control.

Then there are others who abuse the system and there are plenty. There always have been and I suppose always will be, at least until some serious reforms and enforcements are put into effect. Last weekend, I was at one of our local discount stores which sells a wide variety of items, including food. I was in the checkout line behind a group of people who appeared to be family. Their purchase, all of it, was salty “junk food” items like pretzels and chips and packages of candy bars such as Snickers and Reese’s Cups. I noticed the woman had a card in her hand, so I paid special attention. The purchase totaled more than $40, for which she used her EBT card and it was approved. I have to add everyone in the group was overweight and the adolescent boy was listening to an MP3 player with expensive headphones and was wearing designer label clothes, including Nike sandals. Yes, I am being judgmental here, but they certainly did not appear to be “needy.”

I read one person’s comment last week saying the EBT program should be operated like the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program which provides nutrition assistance for pregnant women, babies and children. But, WIC has very specific rules on what their vouchers cover, which are milk, baby formula and other basic needs. Chips and candy are not on their list. I think that’s a great idea.

Serious reform for EBT is long overdue. It’s a great program for those who truly need it and who use it properly, while also looking for alternative ways to support themselves, like finding a job. But for those who misuse the privilege and act like it is somehow owed to them, I would love to say they need to live it up now, because the end is coming. But, I can’t say that because I simply don’t know.