The most surreal thing happened to me last week. I was asked to participate in a live, online discussion on HuffPostLIVE called Faces of Food Stamps. You can view the 1/2 hour program here. It is so awesome that my post I’m a Welfare Mom has generated so much discussion here and on Everyday Feminism.
The HuffPostLIVE segment was prompted by a woman in Georgia who was harassed at a grocery store for being on Food Stamps (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP). The guests were myself, Sandi Bachom, who is living on Food Stamps in NYC, Jojo Rhines, who is living on food stamps in South Carolina, and Mayor Greg Stanton, Phoenix, AZ Mayor who spent one week living on a Food Stamp budget (and limitations). It was a wonderful discussion that brought up a lot of good points about how we treat people on “welfare”.
Is it Hard to Live on Food Stamps?
It was universal the dehumanized way people on Food Stamps are made to feel so in that aspect it is difficult to live on Food Stamps. One thing I found interesting was that the other guests were talking about how difficult it is to eat on a Food Stamp budget. A single person seems to get anywhere from $16 to $37 per week. The national average is $133.14 per month. I had never broken it down like this and that is a small amount to eat, let alone eat healthily. That’s $1.47 per meal.
I have to admit that I have found Food Stamps to be more than I used for groceries prior to Food Stamps. I originally got $768 a month – that sounds like A LOT! – but is $153 per person per month. The thing is you get economy of scale when you are cooking for a family. If I make a pot roast I don’t have to buy 5 roasts, 5 pounds of potato, etc. I can reduce my overall cost by combining and sharing. Of course, my kids are small so I’d hate to estimate how much a family with 3 teens would need. However, I still think the amount is high and perhaps the SNAP program could fund increased single-user benefits by calculating in an economy of scale decrease for families?
A couple other things to keep in mind with regards to Food Stamps: it is easy for me to cook from scratch and that is a very privileged position. I have time, a plethora of tools that I had before going on Food Stamps, and the knowledge from a mother and grandmother that cooked from scratch. This is not something that all Food Stamp recipients have at their disposal.
I’ve always disliked the image above because it makes a huge white, middle class privilege assumption. If you are going between two jobs or working double shifts you don’t really have time to cook. Do you have a functioning oven? A functioning refrigerator to grocery shop in this manner?
I think it is important to realize that everyone does not start with the same tools and opportunities. We shouldn’t judge what we don’t know.
Are Food Stamp Recipients Lazy?
The other take away I wanted people to get was that many Food Stamp recipients do work. The Georgia woman can’t work because she’s on dialysis. Sandra Bechom is on assistance due to disability/age. It is fitting that the guy who harassed the woman in Georgia gets to live with judging her as lazy when in fact she’s dancing with death. Judge not, huh?
Here’s the thing though, I don’t like the idea of “well that’s ok because they deserve Food Stamps” implying that others do not. At no point in our Food Stamp journey has my family been jobless. Yes, I haven’t went back to work because I’m staying home with my kids instead of working only to afford child care. My husband worked a retail job during our 5 months of Food Stamps. He wasn’t lazy he was the working poor.
Food Stamps are available to families making at or under 130% of the Federal Poverty Line. In 2012 the Federal Poverty Line for a family of 5 is $27,010. That means you are considered underemployed and eligible for SNAP up to $34,032 (gross) for a family of 5. Note, at that annual income a family of 5 would get less than $20 per month in Food Stamps so the sliding scale approaches zero quickly at the higher end and definitely does not cover a substantial portion of the needed food budget.
So why should an employed person get help? For me, the obvious reason is everyone deserves a meal. Especially kids (note that able-bodied adults without dependent children are normally only allowed Food Stamps for 3 months). But, Food Stamps and other working poor entitlements like EIC, are often touted as alternatives to increasing the minimum wage. These programs are designed to make living at a less-than-living wage possible without requiring businesses to shoulder the whole burden. That is a Republican idea. Don’t put it all on business and the minimum wage.
The fact is that the majority of Food Stamp recipients either can’t work (elderly/disabled/primary care givers for children or disabled) or are in fact working. According to Forbes only 16% of recipients are non-working and without children. A full 30% of SNAP households are working at below a living wage and use Food Stamps to offset the deficit in wages. The US ranks first in amount of people on Food Stamps and I think this is why: other countries invest in living-wage policies and thus require less food supplementation.
Are you wondering now if you know someone eligible for SNAP who doesn’t even know it? I bet we all do. The USDA estimates that 1 in 4 eligible people don’t receive SNAP. During the Bush Administration commercials actually ran to increase enrollment – which worked – increasing participation by 63% (source). I don’t see any rational reason for avoiding SNAP. This overblown idea that American’s are “bootstrappers” who “built that” is total bs. If your country says that increased wages are not possible for x business but this program can supplement your income then why avoid that? You don’t avoid public schools for those that can’t afford private; you don’t avoid middle-class tax credits like the mortgage interest deduction.
I mean think about it: The government is saying that homeownership is difficult and they want to help people make that happen. Instead of sending everyone a check for a down payment they decided to allow an interest deduction. Does anyone say “well I’m not going to take that because I’m a self-starter and can do it on my own!”? No way! So if you are working in one of the millions of jobs that the government has decided is not paying a living wage and they are pointing you to this program to help you why is that stigmatized?
Well the stigmatization ends for me. I refuse to hang my head for supplementing my husband’s income with SNAP. My husband does an important job keeping the electricity running in this country and the government says we get a little help based on the pay he gets. I’m taking it! We aren’t lazy. We aren’t irresponsible. If he didn’t do that job then someone else would need to. They should be able to have a family too. I’m taking the mortgage deduction. I’m taking the EIC if I’m eligible. Maybe some day everyone will get paid a full living wage. Until then I’m using the programs that are available for me and my children.