Let’s perform a visual exercise together. I want you to picture the average person using food stamps.
What do they look like? What do they do daily? Do they have kids? Are they able-bodied? Do they have a healthy bank account? What job do they hold? Be honest with yourself about who you are picturing, you’re likely reading this alone and no one will judge you.
If your imaginary food-stamp recipient was a working, able-bodied parent, or possibly a senior-citizen living on social security, then good job!
What about me? Did you picture someone like me? Probably not, but that would also have been a correct answer.
Although I don’t use any social programs now, I used social programs as a child, as a college student and even just a few years ago after moving to Washington.
As a child my parents had to deal with job loss, low pay and raising two young kids in a small home.This was the late 1990s, before the last recession. My mother used CHIP (the federal child health insurance program) and we received free lunch at school. While I ate boxed macaroni and cheese dinner, my parents went without because they made too much to earn Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
During my college years I worked part-time as a server while going to school full-time. I also lived with a boyfriend who worked part-time as a short-order cook while attending college. We had just enough to pay the rent and utility bills, plus gas in the car for school. What was left barely kept us fed, so we applied for food stamps. That’s when I learned, in Idaho at least, I had to work a minimum 30 hours a week to be eligible since I had no children and was able-bodied.
When you are working 25 hours a week and then spending time in the classroom for an additional 20 hours a week, while trying to squeeze in homework and extracurriculars, the additional 5 hours a week was a brutal ask. But I did it, because I wanted to be able to eat more than microwaved ramen noodle packets.
When I transferred to university and worked for my school’s paper, I did not qualify for SNAP, even though I made less than I did as a server, because the school did not track hours worked but gave us a regular “stipend” based on the amount of work we did. Because of this my college advisor created a student food pantry for people to donate food too. I ate a lot of canned soup those last two years.
I was not a unique case. According to statistics referenced in an article written by MarketWatch.com, two million college students are at risk of going hungry but don’t qualify for SNAP.
“The share of college students struggling to feed themselves adequately ranged from 9 percent to over 50 percent, with 22 of the (31) studies estimating rates of food insecurity at more than 30 percent,” the article states.
When my husband and I moved to Washington we didn’t have jobs lined up right away. While I waited for an opening in my field I worked part-time at a local grocery store. I made $12 an hour shopping, packing and delivering other people’s groceries. I didn’t mind it but I couldn’t get more than 15 hours a week and I wasn’t eligible for full benefits. My husband worked at an Amazon warehouse and only made $15 an hour with a max 25 hours a week, no overtime. Also Amazon offered no benefits. While we weren’t eligible for SNAP, we were lucky enough get help in applying for the state’s health insurance program, which let me see a doctor for free. Our combined monthly income during that time was just around $2,000 a month pre-taxes. With our rent at $1,475 a month that left us with around $500 a month for student loan payments, utilities, gas, car insurance, medical bills and lingering credit card debt from my time in college. Let alone food.
Recent news outlets have reported the Trump administration is planning to tighten requirements even more around the food stamp program, possibly kicking 700,000 people off their benefits.
“Under long-standing rules, adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are ‘work eligible’ and have no dependents can receive only three months of SNAP benefits during a three-year period if they do not meet the 20-hour per week work requirement,” USA Today Reporter Doug Stanglin wrote in an article on Dec. 4. “The new rule, which was finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, restricts states from exempting certain ‘work-eligible adults’ without dependents from the steady employment requirement in order to receive SNAP benefits. The change, which takes effect on April 1, 2020, does not apply to children and their parents, those over 50-years-old (including the elderly), those with a disability or pregnant women.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an opinion column published by the Arizona Daily Star that the food stamp program “was never intended to be a way of life.”
“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Perdue wrote. “We need everyone who can work, to work.”
These people are working though, and many people are working jobs that don’t pay them enough of a living wage to actually live.
According to the USDA’s research in for 2018:
•One-third of SNAP participants were non-disabled, non-elderly adults, including parents and caregivers. Seven percent of all participants were able-bodied adults age 18-49 in childless households.
•Forty-four percent of participants were under age 18; 14 percent were age 60 or older; and 9 percent were non-elderly adults with a disability.
•Only 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in FY2018. More than half (54 percent) of households with children had earnings, while 19 percent of SNAP households had no cash income of any kind in the month the data were collected.
•The percentage of households with elderly individuals has increased by 10 percentage points in the past 25 years, from 16 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 2018.
An interactive data chart provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows many details about our neighbors in Washington using food stamps.
According to its data in 2017:
•1 out of 8 Washington residents used SNAP. This matches the national data which shows 1 out of 8 Americans are on the program.
•More than 59 percent of Washington SNAP users are in families with children.
•Almost 33 percent of local users are in families with someone who is elderly or disabled.
•More than 42 percent are working families. In the U.S. more than 44 percent of families using SNAP have at lease one member working.
Most SNAP participants in our state are classified as “poor.” Forty-one percent of participants’ income was between 51-100 percent below the poverty line, another 38 percent had income below 50 percent of the poverty line and only 21 percent were above the poverty line. Another 10.8 percent of households in our state were food insecure and the median income was only 7.7 percent above the 2007 level, after adjusting for inflation. Between 95 and 100 percent of eligible people used SNAP. This kept 208,000 Washington residents, including 96,000 children out of poverty, according to the CBPP.
And if you think SNAP benefits are allowing for larger-than-average food budgets, think again. According to the CBPP, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person was just $122 and the average benefit per person per meal was $1.34.
I can’t buy a sandwich as McDonalds for under $2. And the last time I went to the grocery store about three bags of groceries was nearly $150 (and I use coupons!).
Besides helping families stay fed, some theorize SNAP benefits have wider economic benefits, especially during lean times.
“Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity,” the CBPP states.
So in this economy the Trump Administration wants everyone who can work to work. Well, according to this data, most are but many are working jobs that don’t pay a wage which lets these people actually live.
Even though most people on SNAP are able-bodied and already employed, a lot of these laws are passed thanks to the myth of the “welfare queen.” This racist, completely false myth was created in the Reagan era after a woman from Chicago, and before that Kitsap County, was arrested for multiple crimes, the least of which was welfare fraud. The story of the real welfare queen, Linda Taylor, is a winding story about crime, fraud and even possible murder. I’d advise readers to listen to the story about her on the NPR podcast “Code Switch.” You can find a story about her here; http://bit.ly/welfarequeenpodcast.
In fact there are few cases of welfare or SNAP fraud in modern day. To read a longer history about welfare fraud I’d check out this article from Time Magazine, https://time.com/4711668/history-food-stamp-fraud/.
“While critics still like to use old arguments of rampant abuse to lambast a program that feeds millions of Americans, the fraud rate has decreased from ‘about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent’ by 2006,” the Time.com article states. “And this decline has only continued, with the 3.5 percent rate of fraud in 2012 reducing to less than 1.5 percent today.”
While there isn’t much Washington residents can do now about the administration’s new changes to SNAP, we should pay attention to the facts around these controversial issues and check-in with our own biases when it comes to those who use social welfare programs. Support your neighbor and remember these actions when headed to the polls next year.