By Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist Published May 08, 2013 at 3:05 PM

In a previous time, poor people on food stamps were accused of buying lobster and steak on the government dole.

These days, it's potato chips and soda.

Progress? Not really.

For some, it's all part of the continuing attack on low income people who depend on government assistance by some politicians looking to score points and win elections by demonizing the poor. How else to explain a bill in Madison requiring food stamp recipients in Wisconsin to spend most of their money on "healthy foods" as defined by the state?

(FYI: Not many state officials can agree just what "healthy foods" means.)

Telling people what they can or can't eat isn't usually a smart political move. But after a 2012 presidential election that pretty much divided the nation into a population of either "takers or makers" it seems that some Republicans in Madison want to force the issue.

Even someone like Sherrie Tussler of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee – who supports the need for nutritional guidelines in the food stamp program – understands the need to give low-income families a degree of dignity and respect before imposing legislation that would never be considered for more affluent citizens.

"I know that government can't decide for us what we purchase at the grocery store, it's just not realistic," Tussler told reporters when the Assembly bill was first proposed. 

The strangest thing about the bill passed by the Assembly this week that will require at least two-thirds of the state's FoodShare program to come from an ambiguous list of foods determined to be healthy was the lack of any definable evidence the law needed to be passed in the first place. 

Even the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) has admitted that the only real information he has about an alleged abuse of FoodShare in terms of junk food purchases by food stamp purchases is largely anecdotal.

In other words, he's heard lots of people talking about it but nobody can prove it.

Seems like a weird way to come up with a bunch of new laws.

The FoodShare program has been the subject of media investigations for fraud in the past that involve recipients illegally buying or selling food stamps in an underground black market but even those reports admitted most of the cases represented just a small fraction of the total amount of people receiving food stamps in Wisconsin.

The anecdotal nature of the alleged abuses remind me of the Ronald Reagan era view of food stamp recipients who made exorbitant food purchases. President Reagan himself referenced the infamous "welfare queen" who bought lobster and steak when he was president, even though a subsequent investigation never found the woman.

These days, Kaufert and others talk incessantly about rumors they hear about large amounts of junk food being purchased with food stamps and apparently decided that it had reached a critical mass in need of a solution. 

The nutritional aspect of the bill can't be disputed; it's better to encourage low-income families to eat healthier. But the reality is a poor family in Milwaukee doesn't have that many healthy food choices due to the segregated nature of a city where fresh food markets and stores that aren't located in the central city.

And, as a mother who uses food stamps recently told me, the bill ignores a practical reality for many poor families trying to maintain a daily existence in challenging circumstances.

"When my kids get hungry and there's nothing left to eat, sometimes junk food is the only thing that will keep them happy," she said. 

The bill also includes provisions to halt food stamp fraud in the $1.2  billion FoodShare program, another measure some feel is unnecessary since buying and selling food stamps is already illegal. That's why many Democrats see this latest bill as just another attack on the dignity of poor people maligned in the last election by Mitt Romney as the 47 percent who depended on government support.

As if Romney had any clue what it means to be a family on food stamps.

The main problem with this food stamp bill is the way state politicians ignored the current inability of the food stamp system to implement a new proposed ban on junk food under existing regulations and the likelihood that the federal government won't approve the measure anyway.

That makes it just another exercise in futility for state politicians with the only discernible intent being making some people continue to look down their noses on food stamp recipients who buy salty and savory treats for their children.

Ironically, the food stamp reform bill passed by the Assembly – it now goes  to the state Senate – seems to pit some conservatives who usually argue to keep government out of private lives against those who believe taxpayers have the right to impose restrictions on any government benefit because, after all, we pay for it.

What's clear is the only people with the gall to demand that poor families can't have chips and sodas for snacks are those fortunate enough not to need government help during tough times.

In some ways, it's almost like the reverse of the old Marie Antoinette line about the poor: "Let them eat cake."

Only this time it's more about not letting them eat potato chips. 

Eugene Kane Senior Writer and Columnist

Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.

Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.