SNAP decisions

Recently I stopped to pick up a few things at the grocery store. My list was short, but by the time I got to the last aisle, my cart contained nearly a hundred dollars worth of groceries. Either I was impulse shopping or my list was not complete. There was nothing that I didn’t need in my cart: a few peppers to be added to my green tomato chutney waiting to be made, a package of toilet paper, some cheese, juice, spices, milk and other essentials.

I met a friend who was also shopping. She is a retired person, living on her Social Security check, a small retirement and incidental income. She worked most of her life, but she worked at traditional “women’s work” and therefore earned half of what most men her age would have earned. Her Social Security benefits, as a result, are also less than her male counterpart’s. My friend was carefully adding up her groceries as she planned her meals for the next few days. She proudly told me that although she had been told that she could qualify for food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, she had never taken a handout.

I admire my friend’s pride and her independence. She rarely complains about her situation and makes the best of life as it is. I wonder, however, what she has to forego to have enough food for a healthy life. Does she not replace the batteries in her smoke detectors on a regular basis? Does she opt for cheaper, but less nutritious foods to have enough calories to avoid hunger? Is she able to eat fruits and vegetables on a regular basis? Does she make needed repairs to her car? Are the brakes repaired and tires reliable? Does she skip medical and dental care? Can she afford the medicines she needs?

My friend resists applying for SNAP benefits because she sees them as a “hand out.” She sees FOX news pieces about “Surfer Dudes” who use their SNAP benefits for lobster. She sees the disparaging portrayals of “welfare queens” who defraud the system. She reads editorials by Representative Kevin Cramer, one of the richest members of the House of Representatives, who misquotes the Bible about working and eating. Mr. Cramer repeats exaggerations about millionaires and lottery winners getting food stamps, eligibility based on requesting a brochure, and illegal immigrants being handed free food. All the while he extolls the value of work and ignores the difficulty of finding work that provides a living wage. Even though Representative Cramer was referring to “Surfer Dude” and others like him when making references to working for food, my friend hears her name. Perhaps my friend has watched others with their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card in the checkout at the grocery store. She may have seen other customers glare and the checkout clerk sigh and treat SNAP recipients as though they are stealing from the clerk’s own pocket. She might fear the judgement of her friends and neighbors.

So, my friend keeps her pride and struggles to make ends meet.

While Representative Cramer and Fox News seem to want to portray the recipients of SNAP benefits as people who are just lazy and taking advantage of the system, the majority of SNAP recipients, some 76 percent of them, are elderly, disabled or children. In 2010, thirty percent of all recipients worked, up from less than 20 percent in 1990. The increase in the number of people making use of the SNAP program is generally attributed to the economic downturn of 2008 when many people lost their full time jobs. Benefits already are limited to three months for an able bodies worker unless the state has requested a waiver from those rules. The work requirement waivers granted by the Administration are the result of states’ requests for waivers based on high unemployment.

The error rate for the nation’s major feeding program is relatively small, and the amount lost to fraud is a tiny percentage. The average benefit across the country is $133 a month, $4.36 a day, hardly enough for a lobster dinner every night. SNAP benefits cannot be used for tobacco, alcohol, nonfood items such as toilet paper or tissues, vitamins, hot food from the deli, or foods that will be eaten at the store. Every dollar spent on food assistance returns an estimated $1.70 into the economy through grocery stores, their employees, food manufacturing and agriculture. SNAP benefits are estimated to be responsible for pulling millions of people above the poverty line. Even so, the Census Bureau estimates 47 million Americans live in poverty, the highest level in more than twenty years.

Of course, there are people who take advantage of the supplemental food program. There are those who try to pay for things not allowed with their EBT card. Yes, Surfer Dude should probably get a job. There was a recent crackdown in Detroit which uncovered millions of dollars worth of SNAP fraud. Those charged, however, were not individuals who had charged their toilet paper to their EBT cards. All of those charged were businesses, mostly grocery stores and their owners who were making falsified claims for payment from the USDA.

The SNAP program probably needs updating and new rules for eligibility. Every rule, however, which makes it more difficult for Surfer Dude to get his free lobster dinner once a month, also makes it difficult for my friend to access the help she needs. Should senior citizens, the disabled and children be required to take drug tests? My friend would feel that her integrity was being questioned and that her privacy was being violated.

It seems ironic to me that Representative Cramer talks about the pride of working for a living and then votes for reforms that require taking that pride away by further humiliating and humbling those who need help.

Representative Cramer, however, is taking some of his cues from the people he represents. Many of us have an attitude that the poor should be punished. We are convinced that the people who are receiving $1.33 per meal in food stamps are the ones who are keeping the rest of us from having a secure, comfortable life. We resent that someone beneath us should be getting something for nothing when we work hard and do without. We are ready to blame immigrants for poor wages and our own difficulty finding employment. We look for revenge on those below us on the economic ladder for pulling us down. We are afraid we won’t be able to hang on to our own place in line.

Our attitudes don’t just punish those who don’t deserve or need help, they also hurt people like my friend, by discouraging them from seeking the help they need and deserve.

We’re being used. It is not the poor who have power in the world nor are they the people we should fear.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains