October 24, 2011

A Little Bit of Practical Experience Regarding Food Stamps

Justin Katz

Let's state, right up front, that I don't think most people who receive food stamps are living in the lap of luxury. Yes, one often hears of folks who've got the whole system figured out and seem to do pretty well making a job of milking the system, but presenting them as a majority of safety-net recipients would require some evidence, and in any case, I've yet to meet a self-sufficient American who really wants to build that sort of life.

That said, heart-sleave-tugging public service announcements like Edward Fitzpatrick's Sunday column (not available online, except in the Providence Journal's e-edition) don't really advance public discussion about the appropriate balance of public subsidy and individual responsibility.

Fitzpatrick's central premise is that he's going to find it difficult to abide by the Food Stamp Challenge, which calls on participants to live on "the nationwide average monthly food stamp benefit for FY2010," which comes out to $31.50 per week. Knowing my own family's weekly food budget to be $200, most weeks, and the number of people in my family to be 5 (not including the dog, which would rank third in size, if counted, or the bunny, which stays with us on weekends), I can't say I find the challenge but so daunting.

Look, having such a tight food budget really stinks, some weeks. Running out of orange juice on Wednesday and sandwich meat on Thursday can be discouraging, especially when the apple juice is gone and the peanut butter's low. Sometimes the fast food joint beckons on the side of the road, and the smell of the many fine restaurants in Rhode Island can bring a tear to the eye. (Especially when eating Friday's peanut butter sandwich on a downtown-Newport construction site.)

It isn't fun, but it's certainly doable, and in discussing welfare programs, we're talking about handouts from a government that's more in debt than any entity in the history of humankind — handouts that ultimately must be paid for with money taken out of the economy. (Not to mention that the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program allotments are calculated under the assumption that recipients will spend 30% of their own income on food.)

Among the lead activists behind the Food Stamp Challenge in Rhode Island is RI State Council of Churches Executive Minister Rev. Don Anderson, who offered Fitzpatrick the following testimony:

The Food Stamp Challenge is also designed to highlight "what a modest supplement this is," Anderson said, noting the $1.50-per-meal supplement is less than the $1.94 he spends each morning for a cup of Dunkin' Donuts decaf.

As I recall, my family only numbered three people last time I had anything resembling a regular Dunkin' Donuts habit. Perhaps Mr. Anderson should consider making his coffee at home, like many people must who are struggling to get by in this declining state, rather than wasting the equivalent of one meal per day.

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The short period of my life when hunger was an actual factor is one I don't like to revisit. I think we already do a darn-fine job of 'feeding the hungry' here; the only gaps I'd fill are in personal finance education (how to stretch those food stamps) and nutrition (preventing their use on junk food).

In America, the poor are much more likely to be obese than hungry. Really.

I still find it very disheartening when I drive my beat-up Focus to the grocery to buy veggies and eggs with cash, then see the family in front of me use food stamps to buy chips, soda, and leave in a Mercedes. How does that work?

Posted by: mangeek at October 24, 2011 4:16 PM

What is completely missed is that the funding for social programs comes out of someone else's pocket - and not just the rich someone elses.

So at what point does the assessing and collection of funds for social programs push someone from a funder to someone who would qualify for the program?

Posted by: Monique at October 24, 2011 5:26 PM

Have we all forgotten that Food Stamps are as much as ubsidy to agribusiness as they are to the needy?

As with Mangeek, it is disheartening to see people expend food stamps on junk.

I supose it works both ways. A friend whose family is, for a variety of reasons, in a disasterous situation has recently begun recieving food stamps. They are using them for $7.00 per lb steaks.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 24, 2011 5:53 PM

Is hunger really a huge problem in this country? When was the last time anyone starved to death in the U.S.? You can literally buy a chicken sandwich for $1 at McDonald's or a monstrous sandwich with everything on it that lasts multiple meals for $5 at Subway. Those evil corporations hoarding the wealth sure do drive down prices through economies of scale. Maybe there's something to that free market thing after all.

Something that isn't often mentioned is that low-income kids get lunch at school free or reduced to the point where it is essentially free. A number of documentaries have featured the fact that many or most people at subsidized "soup kitchens" have sources of income. The real benefit of private charity is that people are able to evaluate who really needs their help and attach conditions to the aid while government just writes checks. Private charity is a humbling and sometimes embarrassing experience, which progressives dislike and want to limit, but they miss the point. Embarrassment is an important, even necessary component for a functional safety net. It's by far the most effective method of distributing aid and getting people real help instead of just making them dependent. It's the impersonal process that makes dependency possible.

Number of times I have been asked for change on the street: 1000's

Number of times I have been asked for help getting sober, finding a job, locating housing, etc.: 0

It's particularly sad, because I would actually respond the second request.

Posted by: Dan at October 24, 2011 6:45 PM

"Food Stamps" are no more my friends. It is a credit card that looks like a regular business transaction. The US govt. is mainstreaming this program and actually seeking applicants. The drive for cradle to grave dependency is in full gear with Hussein Obama.....witness today's mortgage bailout program imposition without congressional authority. Dependency in all it's forms suffocates the individual and a society.

Posted by: ANTHONY at October 25, 2011 12:33 AM

How about a Food Stamp Challenge that would look into why there are 1154 recipients using TEMPORARY Social Security numbers that begin with 666 made up by Dept. Of Human Services. Maybe we could actually find out just what and how long TEMPORARY is. Another Challenge would be for us to look into the cost of advertising the SNAP program on TV, radio, the newspaper and the cost of DHS employees scouring the community for potential clients.

Posted by: leprechaun at October 25, 2011 9:03 AM

leprechaun is right of course.
NO illegal alien should be getting ANYTHING under this program.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 25, 2011 5:10 PM

First,the premise of this challenge is flawed because it uses an average based on national allotments. In our state,the allotment can be much higher. A friend of mine,who is truly disabled,gets $44 approx per week. So it's bogus on that count here.

It's also flawed because people who get the food stamp,or Snap or whatever it's called now,can also get food from the state food bank and soup kitchens. This is not factored into the "challenge."

Also,one must qualify for the food stamp program in our state to use the food bank. Working class people having a hard time but not qualifying for food stamps need not apply.

Further,the food stamp program is supposed to be a supplement,not the total amount an individual or family would spend on food. It doesn't stop people from getting food from family or any other source. So this challenge requires participants to live in more stringent circumstances than the people who actually get food stamps.

It also ignores the fact that people on food stamps can use coupons,which are a great help and not always about junk food. Couponing can save a family much money for the price of, in our area,a Boston Globe,because it has all of the coupon inserts,unlike the Projo.

Stores also send out or provide their own coupons. In the past couple of months I've gotten 2 free pounds of butter,2 coupons for $2 off five$ of produce,free cheese,free klondike bars,jar of spaghetti sauce for $.50,free salad, and much more for example,if you spent $15 total for your order,with the exception of the produce. One free or reduced item per order.

$31.50 is quite doable. For two adults that would be $63. Are they kidding or what? That's way more than we spend in a week on people food alone for two adults. We eat very well. I mean,sometimes lobster, porterhouse steak,all sorts of fresh fruits and veggies well.

I'm thinking of taking this challenge. I had only planned to spend $30.00 this week but gosh,I'd have to spend $63.00.

Posted by: helen at October 25, 2011 9:33 PM

Monique's post hits it on the head.

Posted by: helen at October 26, 2011 12:25 AM

Perhaps Mr. Anderson is one of the elite,who gives a false idea about how average people actually live. That's how he seems from his reported comments.
Coldhearted as they are.

Posted by: helen at October 26, 2011 1:05 AM

"Rev"Anderson is one of the most mely mouthed self-hating people I've ever heard speak on the subject of illegal immigration.
He throws the "racism"card faster than anyone I've ever heard.
He is a real miserable individual and a liar.
Just check him out if he is ever in a panel discussion.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 26, 2011 3:05 AM

Joe,I never heard of him before. Will alert to mention of him now.

Posted by: helen at October 26, 2011 3:43 AM

"First,the premise of this challenge is flawed because it uses an average based on national allotments. In our state,the allotment can be much higher."

Ooooh. That's why the national rather than the RI average was chosen for this challenge.

Posted by: Monique at October 26, 2011 8:10 AM
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