Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eff Off About Food Stamps

I read an article yesterday that stated that if Republicans were really interested in stimulating economic activity, they would want to increase programs like food stamps, which generate $1.73 in economic activity per dollar spent, rather than focusing on tax cuts, which generate less than a dollar for every dollar the program costs.  Now, I'm not going to get into the politics of this because that is beyond the scope of this blog (and I really do try to keep it on topic), but some of the comments I've seen in response to this article really got my dander up.

There are a lot of negative stereotypes and misconceptions about people on the food stamp program.  As someone who has received these benefits for a couple years now, I find quite a lot of them offensive and wanted to address some of them.

People who receive food stamps are lazy and don't want to work.
As the article I linked to above mentions, about a third of people who receive food benefits do work, but are still close to the poverty line.  The economy is struggling and a lot of hard working families struggle with it.  Our family is one of these working families that qualify for the program.  My husband works 50-70 hours a week plus goes to college on-line trying to make a better future for our family.  Yes, I stay home, but with three young children, by the time you factor in child care plus everything I do to save us money plus the expenses that would come with working outside of the home such as an additional reliable vehicle and associated costs such as gas and insurance, nicer clothes, etc., I would have to make roughly $60,000 a year to break even with staying home (it might be more now.  I think I originally calculated that number when there were only 2 little ones that we'd have to have child care for), let alone make additional income to be able to spend on silly things like food.  Unless this is your first visit to this blog, you know I'm not just sitting at home watching soaps all day, eating truffles, and collecting my government bennies.  Not hardly!  I'm so busy with the kids, the garden, trying to make money online, helping others learn how to save money, etc, that I almost never sit down!  Anyone who has seen me at any sort of social gathering can attest to the fact that I seem lost when I have to sit, it is just too foreign to me.  At Christmas dinner at my father-in-law's house this past year, my step-mother-in-law grabbed my by the arm and made me sit because my incessant motion was driving her nuts.  Lazy I am not!

I know people who get food stamps but they have way nicer stuff than I do, fancier televisions, a better car, nicer clothes, etc.
And how do you know they bought these things?  Just because the clothes are designer or nice, doesn't mean they didn't buy them second hand.  The nicer television may have been a gift from a relative with money to burn.  The great car could have been one they bought before they lost their job...and now they are stuck with it and the payments that go with it.  Unless you know the intimate details of someone's life, you can't make that call of whether them having that stuff is "justified".   Since you can only have a gross income of 130% of the federal poverty guidelines in order to qualify for food benefits, it is unlikely that people that spend their money on this stuff actually exist.

People on food stamps eat like kings.  I see them buying lobster, steak, expensive this and that at the store.  I can't afford to eat like that, so why should they?
People on food stamps waste their benefits (and my tax dollars) on junk food.  I see them buying pop and candy and chips at the gas station or when I'm behind them at the grocery store.
Even if a person was at the gas station buying chips, pop, etc., how do you know that that is a regular thing? Maybe it is a special treat because they can't afford to take the kids out for a treat or they were out doing errands or something and needed something to snack on right then, before they got home to their regular diet of fresh, homegrown organic food. I know there have been a few times that we've been out and about for much longer than I expected and I've had to make an emergency gas station run to get a snack to hold us over until we get home because my blood sugar is crashing and the kids are melting, but considering we get $171 a month in food stamps to feed a family of 6, just recently increased from $75 a month that I mentioned in the past, obviously, we can't make a habit of that. Most of the time, we eat food from my extensive garden or leftovers from my mom's garden and meat that my husband hunted, supplemented with food from the farmers market (one of the localish markets offers doubling on food stamps up to $20 a visit, so I shop there as much as possible!), bulk foods, and staples such as flour and pasta that I turn into meals that feed the whole family for $2-5. Yet, if someone saw me making that emergency snack stop, they might judge me for "wasting" my food stamps and their tax dollars...but I'd like to see them feed their family for $171 a month like I have to! 

The person you see buying a high priced piece of meat may have saved their meager rations for months to be able to splurge like that or maybe they are making a special dinner for a spouse that was just diagnosed with cancer and given 3 months to live so could use a little cheering up or maybe they are trying to start a business so they can get off food stamps and other benefits and need to make a fancy dinner to impress a prospective investor or client. You just don't know.

Another reason a lot of people on food stamps "waste" their benefits on junk food is sometimes there is nothing else really available.  A lot of poverty stricken areas are what is referred to as a "food desert", where there aren't healthy foods available within a certain distance.  Depending on your definition of distance, I actually live in one myself (I don't know that my area would be considered "poverty stricken", but it doesn't seem unlikely since it is a trailer park), since there are no stores where you can buy healthy food nearby.  When my husband is at work with our one reliable vehicle, if I need to buy food, I'm limited to a party store near the entrance of the trailer park that has very limited selections, including no low-fat milk, whole grain anything, or fresh produce.  Even if I walked the 3 miles into "town", the local village, there still isn't anywhere other than another party store with even more limited selections, basically pure junk food!  If I didn't have access to a vehicle to drive the 7 miles to the nearest full (overpriced; the reasonably priced ones are even further away) grocery store, I'd be completely out of luck.  And sometimes I am completely out of luck, since we don't always have the gas money for me to drive that distance!

And not everyone that receives food stamps gets the same amount, so certainly not everyone can eat like kings.  I've seen "averages" being listed as upwards of $100 a person in an eligible family, but not everyone gets that much.  As I mentioned, my family of 6 gets $171 a month now for the whole family, not the $600+ that some people seem to think we would.  I know people that get quite a bit more, and some of those people, not all, do in fact abuse the system, but my family, and others like us, certainly can't afford to buy pop and dump it out in the parking lot for the 10 cent cash deposit as some people claim "lots" of people on food stamps do.  In fact, the only reason I have pop bottles to return is that my husband works for a manufacturer of a name brand of pop and they sell their nearly expired pop to employees almost for free (just a hair above the deposit).  Most of the people I know that get a lot in food stamps still spend pretty frugally, so that they can save the additional benefits for someday down the road when they pass the income eligibility limit but are still struggling, to give themselves a future safety net, since the amount left on the card stays on the card until spent, rolling over from month to month (unlike WIC, which is a "use it or loose it" thing that expires on a certain day each month).  In our family's case, the $171 we get works out to $6.33 per person per week.  I don't know too many people that can eat like kings on that kind of budget...or eat at all on that kind of budget, for that matter! I'm pretty sure the government is spending far, far more to feed prison inmates than to feed our family that is doing the right things and working hard to get ahead in this world.

The point is you can't judge someone by a two-second snippet of their life. You have no idea what else is going on in their life to take them to the point you see them at. So what if you see someone on food stamps buying something you deem unacceptable? That person you see at the gas station may have a similar situation to the scenario I mentioned above.  Someone might judge me badly for not having any fruits or veggies on the conveyor when I went shopping the other day, since I have a garden starting to teem with veggies, a freezer full of fruits I've already put up for the season I got at the farmers market, as well as a cooler full of blueberries I had just purchased in the car.  You just don't know what is going on so STFU with the judgments.


  1. You make a really good point here. Unfortunately, our culture is terrified of what people consider to be socialist practices, such as tax dollars going to help make sure someone eats. We also are an "every man for himself" kind of group, and what I say over and over is that for capitalism to work, there have to be a few really poor, and a few really rich, with most everyone else in the middle. What middle-class people aren't paying attention to when they judge the poor is that the rich are slowly but surely making them poor too, and you never know when you'll find yourself in a place where you don't have the money to buy food or pay your bills. It is then that these people will want assistance, and it won't be there, becuase it is in someone else's pocket.

  2. Chris, well said!! Well thought out, well worded, well organized!! My family of 5 was on food stamps for all of six months, and we only got $43 a month. It was almost a joke to get it at all, but any help was help so we took it graciously. I too had heard about $100/person, so when we ended up with $43, i was surprised. And then, i think we ended up working a coupla more hours a week than usual and we lost em. The application process is LONG and BIG and it wasn't worth it to us to reapply for that amount. I'm a rather new reader, but i've been really digging your style and what you are about and i commend you deeply for "doing it all right." You are a wonderful role model. Keep it up! ~ peace ~

  3. THANK YOU! I've been on food stamps before and I was always so frustrated with people who gave me an attitude about my food purchases.

    At one point I was in line to check out, and had chatted a bit with the woman behind me. She thought my almost three year old son was adorable and was congratulating him on his birthday (as his b-day cake was in the cart, it was kinda obvious).

    But when I whipped out my food stamps to pay for the cake, she got angry and started to loudly protest that HER tax dollars were going towards junk food like cake.

    Evidently it was okay for normal people to buy their children birthday cakes, but us poor people on food stamps shouldn't dare. I was upset and disgusted. The only thing I ended up saying to her was in reply to her question "Why the heck couldn't you have baked him a cake?"

    "Because I don't have a working oven".

    Honestly, people need to keep their noses in their own business.

  4. I manage a farmers market and we accept SNAP/WIC/Senior Nutritian Vouchers. What I have learned is most users of the vouchers don't know how to prepare fresh fruit and veggies or they don't have the equipment (ovens, canners, pots and pans). I'd like to see the USDA/Extention Offices (in every county) have a functioning commercial kitchen and someone teaching people to cook/can/bake. They could partner with the Social Services Departments and work together to bring good food to ALL people. I think *food stamp* users should also be informed they can use their stamps for food seeds and plants and they should be encouraged to use Community Gardens and to garden at their homes. It's not about not *wanting* to do better, it's more about not knowing *how*. Those that do know should pay it's the right thing to do.

  5. I don't know about other places, but the Dep't of Human Services here does NOTHING to promote healthy eating. They don't even promote the DUFB program I mentioned! Sometimes I think the case workers believe the stereotypes too, as little respect they show clients and as little as they do to promote healthy living. :-(

  6. The DHS here in Oregon doesn't do anything either, nor does Washington (in regards to healthy lifestyles).
    And the judgments are always rolling in when people see the SNAP card. One I get often is "How can you afford to be vegetarian? You're wasting SO MUCH money!" Have you never looked at a label? Meat isn't that cheap. And for about six months the only cooking apparatus I had was a slow cooker. You can put uncooked meat in there, but the thought grosses me out.
    I went to Hawaii this year, and have caught a lot of flak for that-but the trip was work, with the family I was a nanny for.
    And to end this rant of a comment, heaven forbid anyone who knows you're on SNAP ever sees you buy alcohol. (I did this with my own money, btw, from selling foraged morels to a farm stand. Can't buy alcohol with SNAP card. It was for a friends 21st birthday.) That was one of the worst experiences of my life. People can be so mean.

  7. Amen, Sister! Years and years ago I was on food stamps when I was a single mom with 4 kids. I was a very conservative woman, formerly married to a police officer, looked like any soccer mom with young children. Back then you had a coupon book so whoever was behind you in line immediately knew how you were paying....pulling that coupon book out, tearing out coupons, handing them to the person running the register (oh how I would have loved self checkout back then) with whoever was in line behind you staring at you was awful. And in my case always had a negative comment. I was afraid to buy meat after one person's comment was so ugly (and it was a lot of hamburger, not steak I was buying). I got so anxiety filled over the comments while weekly shopping I decided to take my food stamps (i don't remember how much I got but I was a working mom so it was a very small amount for 5 people...yet I needed every penny)...anyway one month I decided to spend my foodstamps all at one time and get it over with. My kids and I always shopped together so here we were-- me, 4 young children, and a huge cart of groceries. Talk about comments from everything on birth control to the cereal I bought. It was humiliating every time I went to the store. People, please don't judge other people. As this post so wonderfully points out you have no idea what the situation is, so just be glad it is not you who needs the food stamps.

  8. It is such a barrier in our society to deal with food stamps. I know the ins and outs and sadly the person I know who gets the most abuses them in ways you could only dream to (she drives almost an hour to Whole Foods to get organic and no red food dye products) and the people I know who get the least stretch every last penny six ways.

    The only advice I can give is to teach by example and you are doing an AWESOME job of that.

  9. The no red dye thing may not be an abuse, per se. My son reacts HORRIBLY to red dye, becoming extremely hyper and even violent, so we don't use any products with it in them in my house. Doesn't mean we have to get things at Whole Foods to do it though.

  10. Oh, man, this is exactly how I feel when I hear people talking about how "lazy" or "freeloading" people on food stamps are. Granted, the benefits here in VA are pretty generous (we get $375 per month for my family of 5, and my husband works a crappy job that pays squat) but 375 per month really doesn't go as far as it should! We don't usually buy junk food and only buy the occassional soda or sweet. Our benefits don't roll over from month to month, either (not like the $375 would last that long, anyway!). If you don't spend it by the end of the month, it disappears.

  11. We get a fairly substantial amount of money for our family, and I'm so grateful because it is literally the only money we have for food. I never catch crap for using the card (because it's a swipe card, most people just think it's debit, and doubly nice if you just hold up the card for the cashier so you don't have to say 'food stamps' out loud). I get the filthy looks for WIC- not because of the choices we make, since they're so limited, but because you have to use each check as a separate order. People have told me (and my toddler son!) to shop when it's in down time so we don't hold up people who have real money to feed their families. Seriously. "Real money".

    We also had to use formula for our son when he was born, because something went wrong and in spite of intensive lactation counseling and using herbs to promote milk production and... well... something went wrong. He was starving to death. We went to formula (which is expensive!) and used WIC for it, and every single time I came through the register, I never got a look until I went to pay with it by check, and then the other ladies in the line and sometimes even the cashier would tell me that I was poisoning him, or that if I was too lazy to breastfeed I shouldn't be spending state money on formula. And every time, I got to the car and cried, because all I ever wanted to do was breastfeed my son- and now, all I wanted to do is not let my infant starve to death because something went wrong with -me-.

  12. I missed this one earlier. I'm soooo glad you posted this. So many times, people witness one of the events you listed and then seem prone to making statements about ALL people on foodstamps. Food access is such an important issue and ensuring that people have some assistance with food is the very LEAST our government can do. I am the outreach coordinator for our local farmers market and we too have a matching program for EBT and WIC users. It is amazing the need and response the program has received. We are also fortunate to be run out of a program that has a Nutrition Center with a commercial kitchen and cooking/gardening programs like Lynda mentioned above. People who do not qualify for food stamps should thank their lucky starts that they are not in even worse financial condition. One in 5 families here in Maine receive food stamps and most of those do work. Many who do not work, would like to, or simply cannot due to disabilities.

  13. So glad you (re)posted this! THANK YOU!

    When one of my children was in the hospital I moved child, my husband and siblings into the room with her. I went to work every day and came "home" to the hospital each night. When we were finally released I stopped by 7/11 and bought my kids about $10 worth of candy/crap. When I pulled out the coupon book the cashier gave me a dirty look. When I explained that we had just spent a MONTH literally LIVING in the hospital and we were heading home and I thought my older two deserved a treat she wiped the look off her face! :( I was so angry! :(

    I finally got a job where we were not only off food stamps but had money to spend. Life was good. Got pregnant and was put on immediate bed rest. Food stamps. Got another job where not only was there money to burn but we got some nice items (tv's, laptops, etc). Things were going well, got pregnant, worked first 32 weeks of my pregnancy until my boss fired me "because he didn't want to share me with an infant". I couldn't perform my duties and care for my infant. (Was BS, I could too and had at other jobs before this job with older child). Nothing could be done, it's an at will state. I couldn't get another job at 32 weeks pregnant, all of our savings went towards moving/deposit/etc. Food stamps again. I have been a SAHM since then as we made the same decision regarding childcare vs income. In Dec (1 week before Christmas) my husbands mother died. He stopped eating (hasn't really started eating regularly even now). I asked what he wanted to eat for dinner. He said Steak. I went out and bought him a steak. While browsing I noticed lobsters for $5 apiece so I bought one of those too. Major dirty looks at the register. :( I just wanted to scream :( Him eating his is IMPORTANT. If he wanted steak, I was willing to sacrifice for it! :(

    My husband works 8am to 8pm 3 days a week, 2 days a week he works 8am to 2am, one day a week he works 7pm to 2am, one day a week he works 5pm to 2am. He works ALL THE TIME. ANd we still qualify for the max of food stamps! (FTR, his 8am-1pm job mostly goes to child support for his older two children. :( )

    We have been told we should not have been allowed to have children together, we have been told we should not be allowed ANY meat (or only hamburger), that we should not be allowed to have pizza (a local pizza place will sell pizza to food stamp recipients because they prep the pizza, wrap it and you take it home to cook it, totally legal).. but we should not be allowed to purchase this FRESH pizza, only frozen pizza.. One camp says we should get LOTS of rice/noodles/crap food to fill our stomach on less food, another says we should not be allowed to have that food as it is not healthy... But many families DO eat it because it is CHEAP! AND it stores well. I don't need fridge/freezer space for pasta. I don't have to worry about boxed/processed food going bad if I have to buy in bulk and eat through the month. We only have one vehicle and I can ONLY use it on the days hubs gets off at 8pm or on Fridays/Saturdays before he goes to work. Sundays I *might* get a trip in after church/before he goes to work.. but I cut into his naptime if I do that. And the man deserves every minute of sleep he can get! :( Fresh fruit? not usually. It goes bad too quickly. Farmer's Market, no SNAP. :( Choices? Few :( Doing the best I can, tired of the crap from folks who DO NOT understand? Definitely! :(

  14. Boy, do I agree! I've been lucky enough to not get a lot of attitude from others about my use of food stamps, and as one commentor stated, lucky enough that I receive a substantial amount, since this is literally my family's only food budget, for myself, four kids, and my disabled mother, who recently moved in with me (and as soon as I report that, my benefits will go way down b/c of her income, though her medical expenses are quite high). I wouldn't mind working, but tell me, where can I find a job that will pay me enough to pay someone to care for my children and mother, plus the commute from my small town (30 miles one way to the next larger town; this one is only about 400 people) at the current gas prices, not to mention my vehicle is about to fall apart, so I'd need a new one, and still have enough left to support my family after "they" take away my food stamps and raise my rent on my income-based housing. Oh, btw, the nearest grocery that sells anything healthier than lunchmeat, hot dogs, and a few varieties of canned veggies is in that "nearest larger town" as well, so when you see me check out with two carts of groceries, I'm trying to save gas money! The government housing I live in (really, don't you wish they'd get their programs together for some smart solutions?) has severe limitations on gardening. Basically, I can only have as many pots on my porch as they think looks tidy, which isn't many. They're constantly complaining about my childrens' bikes (gifts from their grandmother during better times, and now about shot, but I figure a boy should be allowed to tinker if he's inclined, and my oldest is) being on my porch, but the small communal bike rack is full, so I ask you, what am I supposed to do with them? I suppose the answer is, since I live here, they have the right to dictate what I have a right to own, on top of everything else. And I should throw them away. One of my neighbors even took them to the dumpster when we tried storing them next to the bike rack! Like he has a right to throw my kids' stuff away b/c he doesn't think it should be there! Off topic I know, lol. Touched a nerve. Back on the subject, I never knew farmer's markets ever accepted food stamps before your blog, so thank you; I'll be finding out if my "local" ones do. I always thought that to get food that way, I'd have to pay cash, and on $315/month cash income for a family of five, I could never afford to do so, even if it was much better food. Doesn't matter if you have the opportunity to buy a diamond; if you don't have the money to do so, you're stuck with the glass, so to speak. It's very difficult in my area to find and afford organics, so I would LOVE to have a little bit of land I could do with as I wished, so I could garden and raise chickens and such. Not only would I be saving money, but I'd have more control over what my family's eating. I'm learning, and taking steps, but some of the ones I'd like to take are beyond my reach. Thanks for a good post; I think everyone should read it, as well as the anonymous comment directly before mine. No one knows what someone's situation is, and even if some are abusing the benefits (I know one family who buys steaks and such for the grown-ups and cheap crap for the kids, which I find appalling, and still bums from their neighbors toward the end of the month), that doesn't mean we ALL are. I also knew one elderly disabled couple that got less than $20 a month in benefits. Talk about a joke! I agree. Stop the judgements!