Food Stamps Debate

This was written by Mary Davis.

I had an interesting conversation on Facebook the other day. It was in regard to a political post I put up on my wall. It was actually an enlightening discussion, and made me consider the kinds of things I post when it comes to politics. The post in question was bound to incite some ire on the part of those who disagreed. Despite the disclaimer I added that I didn’t agree with everything in the article I posted, it was the incendiary part that people focused in on. I couldn’t seem to get them to see the underlying message, the part that I wanted people to see.
But that’s not what’s been weighing so heavily on my mind since that discussion. No. It’s the part during the discussion when a woman I went to college with truly and honestly tried to clarify her position by relating a story of her recent trip to the grocery store. It seems the man in front of her, kid you not, while she was “buying stuff with coupons,” had his cart filled with frozen pizzas and tons of soda for his kid’s birthday party to which twelve kids were invited. And, then, “he pays with an Access card. Is that not taking advantage?”
A friend jumped in the conversation and asked the question that really needs to be asked: “How on Earth is what was in someone else’s shopping cart any of your business?” That’s the part that was so upsetting to me. The attitude that people are just out to take advantage of food stamps and other assistance programs is what I simply don’t understand.
Let me tell you a little bit about food stamps from an inside perspective. My family and I receive food stamps, and yes, I’ve purchased pizza AND soda with my Access card. (While I know the program is actually called SNAP now, everyone is familiar with the term food stamps.)
1. Food stamps probably don’t cover an entire month’s worth of groceries.
The amount of money a family receives is based on their income, family size and cost of basic living expenses. We receive only a small portion of the maximum amount a family of five can qualify for in the state of Pennsylvania. That means we pay for food costs out of pocket when the food stamp money runs out. So if I, or the man from the example, choose to pick up the food for our kid’s birthday party, we’ll just have to pay out of pocket later. Whether the money comes out at the beginning of the month or end, it’s the same amount. It would be ridiculously inconvenient to take time to ring up two purchases – one that people think is appropriate to buy with food stamps, and yet another that others may find questionable and should be paid for with cash out of pocket.
2. People on food stamps use coupons and budget, too.
Just because I’m getting all this “free money” doesn’t mean I’m out there buying all kinds of crappy food at the taxpayer’s expense. I personally shop primarily at a discount grocery store and Aldi. Occasionally, I’ll head to Giant Eagle to pick up sale items and because Brady likes to play at their childcare facility. That does not make me an ‘irresponsible shopper.’
3. Food stamp recipients are are not looking to take anything from anyone.
Why is there an assumption that people in need of financial assistance are out to take anything from those who work hard? This aforementioned Facebook friend noted that her son asked if he could get a card like that to pay for his birthday party. Really? I cannot believe that a kid is even going to notice what the person ahead of him in line is using to pay for his groceries. That’s one observant kid. I do believe that a.) His mother brought the subject up, or b.) The man felt some sort of obligation to explain why he was buying the pizza and soda with his food stamps and was the one who discussed his method of payment.
4. Those who get food stamps aren’t proud of it.
I don’t know a single person who brags about qualifying for food stamps and how much free food they’re getting. I have friends on food stamps and have worked with several clients, when I was a mobile therapist, who got them. If anything, I’ve heard stories of folks being embarrassed to use their card at the register and of those who feel uncomfortable by the judgmental looks they get from those around them. There is no shame in receiving help to meet your family’s needs.
5. Those using food stamps usually try to eat relatively healthy.
We’re really not all out there stocking up our carts with pizza, soda, ice cream and candy. Not everyone is aware of nutritional guidelines and are simply eating the way they were taught in their families or making moderate choices to the best of their ability. Very few in our society eat strictly healthy diets, and it’s incredibly arrogant of anyone to expect food stamp recipients to have different nutritional habits than the general population. The people I know, as well as myself, are all choosing foods that are pretty middle-of-the-road, nutrition-wise. As a rule, I buy very few sweets, some snacks, mostly meat, produce and staples like bread, eggs and milk.
6. Those who qualify for the full amount in food stamps are likely very poor.
If a person is able to buy his groceries exclusively with food stamps because he receives the maximum amount available, he probably has an extremely low income. So should we really begrudge him the money it costs to buy some pizza and soda for his kid’s birthday party or otherwise? I’ve seen the living conditions of people who are awarded the entire food stamp amount available based on their family size. These people tend to take great pride in their food. They use food as a way to celebrate, to come together, to feel normal. I think they should be allowed that much.
I am not ashamed to receive food stamps. I am a college-educated woman who is struggling for now. I report my income for required program updates and provided my paystubs to the assistance office when I began bringing in more money so that the amount we received could be accurately determined. The personal examples I shared were not because I feel I need to justify anything or because I feel ashamed. I gave them because I want to show what an average food stamp recipient looks like, the kinds of choices most of us make. I hope those who are of the belief that we’re all just sponging off of handouts will at least give some thought to the kinds of assumptions they are making.
I’m actually not at all against making some modifications to the program in order to address some of the concerns many people have. In the time that I’ve been receiving assistance, I’ve never been given any nutritional counseling or education. Perhaps that is a component that is missing from the program. Also, a budgeting course or frugal shopping lesson would be something that could benefit those who receive aid. But, above all, people need to be given the dignity to make their own choices about what they feed their families. The majority of food stamp recipients aren’t abusing the system. Please don’t treat us like idiots who can’t make decisions or derelicts who are just lazy free loaders.
Do you receive food stamps? Have you gotten them in the past? I’d love it if you would share your story in the comments. I can only offer my personal story and the accounts of others I have witnessed. If others would share what they’ve experienced, I think it would go a long way to providing a human face on food stamps.

Mary Davis is a freelance writer and blogger, living near Pittsburgh with her husband and three children. Her writing passions include higher education, parenting and personal development, Everyday Baby Steps.

No comments: