Food Stamp Wars

By: Grainne Rhuad

There’s no doubt about it we have a nation of hungry people.  Many would argue that we should perhaps let them “eat cake” as was once attributed to a Queen who lost her head.  After all we are also one of the most obese nations in the world.  It’s hard to feel sorry for people, even poor people when they are walking around with a hundred or more extra pounds.

However, in the last twelve years, without a doubt all our lives and economic status’ have changed.  Many of us are reliant on one form of aid or another.  Perhaps you don’t even see your aid as aid, but you are happy to receive garden overflow from a friend, it helps stretch out your grocery week.  Or you are more open to hand me downs whereas before you vowed never to put your children through that.

In this time of trouble, our government is sitting on funds that are allocated to help people.  It’s a shocking thought when we hear congress arguing about the efficiency of cutting social security, Medicaid and other social programs.  But the fact is we have unused dollars and hardly anybody is asking why.  Those that do are also venturing the hypothesis that these unused dollars could be helping our flagging economy.

In California, a whopping $4.9 billion in benefits is left on the table each year, money that some say could juice the economy by $8.7 billion in related activity; like stores that sell commodities, farmers that grow the food and factories that process and package it.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, (what we used to call the federal food stamp program, no longer are actual ‘stamps’ used instead EBT, an electronic benefits transfer is utilized) states that they are working to make changes to make it more efficient but one wonders why this hasn’t been done and if the money is truly there or has been re-allocated to other places.  Even if it hasn’t it certainly must be talked about.

Our nation doesn’t have a friendly stance on welfare in general and SNAP in particular.  People often cite the misuse of the food allocations.  General complaints are that SNAP users buy food that working citizens cannot afford.  Things like meats and fish and cheeses that in these times people are having to cut down on.  Also, those receiving SNAP will indeed abuse the program buying high ticket items like imported Coffees and returning them for cash or shopping for someone else in trade for money.  The purchase of junk food is another complaint.  Some states in fact have junk food clauses in their Food Assistance Programs, most do not.

We are a nation on the fence with many traditional lawmakers and voters not liking how the food program has been being used; the fact that money that is allocated is not being used is just another argument for them that we should do away with the programs.

At the same time we have some of these traditional voters for the first time in generations maybe needing the assistance they have voted against.  For the first time they are getting a glimpse into the bureaucracy that wraps these programs up and keeps people from getting help.  They are frustrated and are not used to the actual work involved with getting aide.  It’s beginning to shine a light on some of the problems with these programs that people have remained blissfully unaware of up until now.

In the state of California where we grow a great deal of the nation’s food and a lot of the world’s, we are facing some embarrassing statistics. Less than half of those eligible in California enroll, compared to a national average of 70 percent. That’s second to last in the nation.  Compared to their neighbor just to the north, Oregon where 90 percent of those eligible enroll.

Much of this is due to poor legislation.  Currently if you have committed a non-violent drug felony you do not qualify for assistance of any kind.  This logic becomes extremely stupid when one realizes that those who have been convicted of violent drug felonies as well as any other felony are eligible for aid.  That’s right, in California you can kidnap someone, murder them, bury them in the backyard and do your time and get food stamps, but if you are busted with pot while driving forget about it, you’re going hungry; and more alarmingly so is your family that’s anyone who lives in your household.

Another big problem that California in particular has is the requirement for all recipients to be fingerprinted.  This may seem like a small thing and reasonable, however it poses a hardship for families who work.  Contrary to what some people believe most people receiving SNAP nationwide work at least part of the time taking time off during the workday to go to an approved fingerprinting site is a hardship.  Particularly when one has to take time off from a job that may or may not be covered.   In addition many of the working poor have people lining up to fill their jobs, they really aren’t going to leave an excuse to be laid off or fired.  And do we want them to?  This is the big argument that welfare detractors consistently make.  “I work for a living, why shouldn’t they?”  And yet in order to get help, they need to effectively not work.

There is also the distrust factor. Not many people want to willingly give up more of their information than necessary, so this requirement is a stumbling block in reaching families that want to stay off the grid as much as possible. The USDA estimates the fingerprint requirement deters enrollment in food stamps by as much as 7 percent. In addition, the CFPA (Consumer Financial Protection Agency) has found less than 1 percent of food-stamp investigations nationally are due to multiple-aid fraud. Additionally, the state auditor has determined that the fingerprinting requirement is unnecessary, thought it costs the state about $17 million annually.

There are bills on the table aiming to fix some of these problems.  California Assembly Bill 6 aims to eliminate the fingerprint requirement and switch to semiannual reporting. The bill would also help people with receiving a stipend for utility bills through an initiative known as “Heat and Eat.”  This is a good idea for more than the fingerprinting problem; a stipend for utility bills would go a long way towards helping families in need, not abuse the SNAP system.  Others states are and should be looking at doing more of this.

AB 828 would end the lifetime ban on CalFresh (California’s name for SNAP) for former nonviolent drug offenders.

“Fifteen states have already removed this law,” noted Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate for Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento. “Although the numbers are low, about 890 people, it costs a lot to administer and doesn’t recognize people have done their time and instead imposes a lifetime sentence of hunger. It also makes it difficult for their families and for them to successfully reintegrate into the community.”

This issue goes beyond feeding people and enters the territory of also keeping people out of prison.  Ex-Convicts who have done their time should suffer no more punishments.  Isn’t that the point of going to prison, to pay your debt to society?  What good does it do when you come out and cannot provide for yourself and your family and a situation is created where you are a social pariah?

The Federal government under President Obama has been pushing hard for poor performing states like California to fix these problems.  They want to see streamlined application processes and the fingerprinting issues corrected.  It may be one of the things our current administration has gotten right.

In the mean time we need to be looking more towards how SNAP dollars are being spent.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of enterprises approved to accept food stamps grew by one third to 209,000 in 2010 from 156,000 in 2005. With the rise in approved establishments, food stamp benefits also grew to $64.7 billion from $28.5 billion for the same five-year period.

Now businesses like Yum! Brands, which include Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, have been applying in states to accept SNAP EBT.  This new wave of food service friendliness is being pushed along by lobbies and is based on a provision dating to the 1970s allows states to allow restaurants to serve disabled, elderly and homeless people.

If we are truly concerned about health when it comes to feeding people we should be paying attention to these lobbyists who are trying to find a way to get a financial pick me up in a time when a lot more Americans are eating out less often.

Whole food is a standard America should be looking for. Even better, fresh whole food.  To that end a lot more farmer’s markets are set up to accept EBT which is good.  It is the market to table model that will be cheaper for us in the long run and will help us be healthier and make better choices about what we are eating, not to mention what and how we cook.  Perhaps the SNAP program could throw in cooking classes modeled after the ones people pay big dollars to take.  It would be beneficial to families and get them out their homes and experiencing new things.

In any case, the goal should be to find a way to get allocated food dollars to the table instead of penalizing people for both needing them and trying to work.

21 Comments on “Food Stamp Wars”

  1. I just have one comment / correction – in households with a drug felon that person is excluded but their income is counted as contributing toward household expenses, etc. The entire household is not denied.

  2. Good job, Grainne. I have mixed feelings on the whole SS issue. The very idea of taking away money from widows, orphans and retirees is shocking…and unthinkable that Obama of all people is siding with the Republicans on this one. But I also know plenty of bums who milk Social Security simply because they don’t want to work. (Most people with legitimate disabilities do work in addition to their SS check)

    But like you said, it’s a situation that’s screwed up internally and all of this is bound to happen.

  3. Congress passed the Food Stamp Act in August 1964
    By April 1965, about 561,000 people nationwide were enrolled.
    By 1969, 2.9 million people were receiving food stamps
    by 1980, 21 million.
    by 2010 Over 40.5 million people receiving food stamps, about 10 million of these were the result of the current recession, the other 30 million are part of the generational welfare crowd.
    Now there are over 45 million on the program.
    Wow – if the government hands out taxpayer money, more and more people will show up for their freebie. Who would have thought?

  4. Very good points made here. Our society can no longer afford shrugging off poverty, homelessness and hunger. Too many of us are a paycheck away from this. Growing up, my family used foodstamps. We had to. Single mom raising 4 kids going to college trying to make a better life for us. Three of the 4 of us now have post graduate degrees. Point being: don’t dismiss the issue of aid to those who need it by labeling them “dead beats” looking for a “hand out” or “lazy”. Many of us need a break now and again just to get over a hump. Some need longer term assistance due to physical or mental disability. Let us not loose our compasion.

  5. Grainne, your account of California policies was chilling, primarily because our state usually follows West Coast policies, and as the most populated West Coast state, California has the greatest influence. Fortunately, at this point in time, our food stamp program is sympathetic to the struggles of its constituents. Utility, gas and food prices have sky rocketed so high, even workers who have never accepted assistance in their lives are managing their budgets with supplemental food stamps.

    America has been spoiled a long time on fast foods, convenient foods and prepackaged items. The truth is, these foods are harmful, fattening and wasteful of our depleting resources. I hate to lecture people on what to eat, but as long as they continue choosing to eat from the prepared foods market, their behavior is like turning your thermostat up to eighty degrees in the winter, opening all the windows, than complaining about high energy prices. You are what you consume.

  6. Someone give me a freaking handout! I need a break from my 10 hour workdays that I’ve been working non-stop for 10 years! I have humps all over my ass. I’m pro SS if I’m getting some of my own money back and not paying for someone to sit at home, collect unemployment and get drunk without once looking for a job.

    No this is not a stereotype…
    (A shout out to my acquaintances who haven’t held a job in 5 years but can go out and binge drink on my money)

    Salud.

    {sits down and sulks}

  7. There are people in my state who are not getting Social Security checks, even though they are physically incapable of working; cancer patients, stroke victims, people who have experienced kidney or liver ruptures, people with lung diseases. The reason often given them is, they can still stuff envelopes or sit down to type. As though they’ll find a job that way in a highly competitive market.

    The only people i’ve seen on Social Security, were seventy years old or crippled with MS. Crazy doesn’t work in my state since you have to be a little bit crazy to live here. Besides, most of our crazies are just out there, wandering around, and wouldn’t come in for assistance without a lasso pulling them in. I think that’s a clue right there as to the genuinely too crazy to work.

  8. Well, I’m Hispanic and we’re hard workers by genetics. We don’t expect other people to take care of us. (Good thing too, because we usually don’t get help from anyone) So I can’t imagine doing nothing all the time and expecting a paycheck for it. My parents work hard even into their retirement years. In fact, my mother is on SS but she still works within legal limits to make ends meet. So yeah, I’m all for SS for physically disabled people or retirees who have earned it.

    But I don’t have much compassion for people who use this money to avoid stress, feed their drug addictions and raise their kids that they can’t afford (and shouldn’t have had in the first place).

    Oh wait, I forgot. Some of these people are professional Nielsen families.

    Come to think of it….fuck it, I’m going to claim I’m bipolar and take a few months off.

  9. Well, I’m Latin@ and I don’t know about all that bullshit about being genetically inclined to work like a burro, but I do know that in MY culture, collaboration and helping one another without qualification almost comes second nature. IN FACT, Latin@ cultures across the globe are known as collective cultures.

    Now for the reality: in order to qualify for food stamps your economic status has to be REALLY fucked up.

    I know because I had to use food stamps for a couple of years, and it barely kept me fed. there’s also the stigma attached to being a food stamp beneficiary. I can still remember the stares, the condescension, whenever I purchased food with food stamps.

    Secondly, I’m collecting unemployment RIGHT NOW and yesterday, I had to make the choice between paying the rent or seeing a doctor. I do not have medical insurance and I have a severe throat infection with fever, can hardly swallow and my unemployment check BARELY pays my fuckin rent.

    Yeah, I’m living the life of fuckin Riley right now. In fact, this is soooo good, I think I’ll collect for as long as I can. :;sarcasm off::

    As for the person (taxed enough”) who spewed out stats uncritically, please note that foodstamps account for much less than .5% of the federal budget. If we were to add up the welfare handouts to the financial elite over the same time period the costs would be astronomical. Yes, corporations and rich people get handouts in the form of subsidies and a tax structure that allows them to guard most of their wealth from taxes.

    It’s despicable that there are idiots out there attempting to demonize the poor while they SHOULD be looking at the welfare Queens on Wall St., not main street.

    Oh yeah: I had to go on relief for a little over two years, but, though I was almost starving and living in abject poverty, that little bit of help allowed to return to school, get an advanced degree and become a tax-paying citizen. whatever society “gave to me” I gave BACK twice.

  10. Oh! I got so involved in my previous rant that I forgot to mention that the materials that the fast food industry uses to make its products are come from some the most HEAVILY SUBSIDIZED crops in America (and quite possibly the world). IOW, the fast food industry is a welfare beneficiary in ways poor people couldn’t hope to dream:

    http://nyu.academia.edu/KellyMoltzen/Papers/379987/Subsidies_and_Specialty_Crops_An_Analysis_of_the_Current_State_of_U.S._Agricultural_Policy

    Of course, people like the one who calls himself “taxed enough” would rather scapegoat the poor when, even at its highest, what we call welfare was LESS than 1% of the budget. this is called projection in my profession: beating up on your kid because the boss reamed you a good one at the office.

    If the US would divert just a fraction of those subsidies to healthier food crops, it would allow poor people to eat healthy. Many of you don’t know how hard and how EXPENSIVE it is to eat when your poor.

  11. Eddie, I’m not arguing that there aren’t people who legitimately need Social Security. I can name off dozens of people I know that NEED Social Security, some of my own relatives included. I would gladly donate my own money to people who are sick, retired, disabled and who can’t afford to pay their bills.

    But I also know of people who COULD work if they had the slightest desire to contribute to the society they are a part of…but who sit around on their asses all day getting drunk. This is not mental illness, this is laziness. Maybe this is a state to state problem, because I only know two states: Texas and Florida, and it’s very very crooked here.

    Case in point, if I moved in with you, because you generously opened your home to me, but I refused to pay rent and refused to help out with housework, I’ll bet you would become pretty pissed off. I’m an able bodied man and I owe it the society I am a part of, to do something productive. Even if it’s just a little bit, even if it’s just vacuuming the carpet of your house, I would do it to earn my keep.

    Point is, by grouping all of these people together (the people who exploit Social Security and the people who really depend on it) we are giving politicians more leeway to screw us because they can hide behind the “nobody really needs SS” argument, pointing to all these people as statistics, the people who set very bad examples.

    Yes, it is a bullshit argument. Some people would literally die without SS and I would never suggest taking their money away. Some people though, would be forced to work, get over their bipolar shit, and earn their keep. Maybe parents would think twice before they had children they weren’t ready to provide for financially. Maybe there would be less fucked up people in the world if people thought before they bred.

    I realize that’s probably impossible to separate these two groups of people, because criminal behavior is bound to exist in a flawed system. Good people have to suffer along with SOBs and this is what upsets me. The fact that the government is threatening to take away SS from people who TRULY need it is partly the fault of the moochers.

    Of course, with Obama and the Republicans in control, it was bound to happen regardless. The fat cats in Wall Street cannot possibly spare a dime! I’m all for robbing the rich, personally.

    Anyway, I respect your opinion, Eddie, and I know where you’re coming from. Don’t constitute this as an attack on the poor. It’s dishonesty that bothers me.

    And whatever, I’m proud to be a hard working Mexican. I work harder than most white people, and I’m not afraid to say it. My grandmother worked hard her entire life and until she literally couldn’t move! My aunt and uncle took in orphans from all over the neighborhood, but never gave a dime to people who would just blow it on drugs and liquor.

  12. I hear you Mitchell, but the people you’re referring to are the EXCEPTION, not the rule. And too often we here in America want to demonize the poor as if poverty was a character defect. It isn’t. It isn’t for the VAST majority of poor people.

    the fact is that by wasting timer looking at welfare fraud (and NO STUDY has EVER found it to be systemic) we lose sight of the FACT that the VAST MAJORITY of welfare goers to the richest and most powerful. THINK about it: if even at its height, welfare was LESS than 1% percent of federal outlays, how much could they be fleecing YOU?!!

    If you know of a CREDIBLE study that showed that welfare fraud is rampant, then please send me the link, because as social scientist and an advocate in the field, I have NEVER come up with such a study. so the “welfare cheat” the “welfare queen” living large off of our taxes is in actuality a FICTION raised by people who like to bully those least able to defend themselves.

    As for working hard? that’s not something I’m aiming for. I don’t even see my work as “hard.” MY work is my PASSION. and you know what: the vast majority of poor people work hard. the women who raised me worked their fingers to the bone (literally) and when they got old, they were thrown under a bus. No, FUCK working hard, I’m working SMART.

  13. With one sixth of the US population officially now living in poverty, i hope people will take this initiative to grow their own food; or at least a portion of it. I also hope that in the urban areas, more vacant city lots are set aside and used for community gardens.

    A little bit interesting how a debate over food stamps has become a debate over social security. They are two separate programs, completely divorced from each other. Food stamps simply allow you to “buy” foods with a credit card allotment system. Even people who are working but fall under poverty guidelines can receive supplemental food stamps. There is a cash program, general relief, that gives temporary cash assistance through the use of the same card but rarely extends cash benefits beyond six months.

    Welfare for the rich is exactly what we’ll be extending if we allow the restaurant businesses a piece of this particular pie. Beside the obvious aspects of food budgeting, it enables the restaurant businesses to continue pumping out hefty prices for their services instead of adjusting to our much poorer economy. I can visualize it doing much the same as the well-intended housing assistance program did for affordable housing. Through subsidized rental costs, apartment owners were able to raise the rent of their housing units, making them less affordable for workers whose middle class income did not allow housing assistance. By allowing food stamp recipients to dine out on their benefits, the restaurants can continue to charge high prices for their services that the middle class will not be able to afford.

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