January 30, 2014

“I work for the food stamp program—it’s heartbreaking—and appalling—what is being done.” ~ Kristin Monk

Update: Contact your Congressperson directly here.

Click here to Ask your Member of Congress to visit a food bank


Editor’s Note:

The GOP just pushed through $9 billion in cuts to Food Stamps. As a now-successful son of a hard-working (two jobs, usually) single mom—I survived on food stamps and free school lunches for half of my youth—let this be a reminder unto all of us: both parties may be part of the same system, but there are differences that matter. ~ Waylon Lewis PS: I’m now paying tons of taxes, and happily. I’m also now supporting me ma, which I’m not embarrassed to say…’cause I owe her so much more, literally and figuratively, than I can ever repay.

Mother Jones: “The farm bill has been delayed for more than two years because of a fight over cuts to the food stamp program, which is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last June, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) forced a vote on a bill that would have cut $20 billion from SNAP. But conservatives said the cuts were not deep enough, Democrats said they were far too deep, and the bill failed, 234-195. That September, House Republicans drafted new legislation slashing $40 billion from the food stamp program. That bill passed the House with Republican votes only. After months of negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, which wanted much lower cuts of around $4 billion, the House finally passed a farm bill 251-166 Wednesday that contains a “compromise” $9 billion in reductions to the food stamp program.

A look at the “faces of SNAP”—the experiences that I have every day within my community, an outline of how and who receives what, the cuts, and why the program is important. ~ Kristin Monk

I never wanted to work in hospitals.

Throughout my master’s program, the implication was that if you did not go through an additional year and a half of school, plus a one-year unpaid internship (after your Master’s, which wasn’t exactly free) to become a Registered Dietician, you were basically throwing your money away. “Regular” nutritionists had no clout, no real training, and no chance at a successful job. We were to be relegated to pushing things like “life coach” or “nutritional consultant” or “wacky nutrition lady who talks too much about plant protein,” especially once the Dietetics Associations began pushing legislation making sure nutritionists without RDs could not call themselves, or work as, nutritionists.

I have never been happier to throw my money away.

I do something that I never thought I would have the privilege—or the guts—to do.

I’ve worked for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in varying capacities, for over a year. (That’s food stamps, for folks not in the know about weird government acronyms)

I ended up working with SNAP as my “practicum,” or “fancy internship”, experience. I had taught yoga classes in two inner cities throughout my education, and felt that the need for my expertise (as it were) was the facilitation of resources. I discovered that something about how I interact with people (I have been told) sets people at ease. Helps them let their guard down. Encourages them to find what is already available—through yoga, or nutrition. People, particularly people who are not sure where their next meal is coming from—don’t need another guru or holier-than-thou teacher preaching about kale and juicing and lean protein.

People want to be empowered. To know that they can do it: meditate for five minutes, control their breath, bust out an arm balance, take control of their own health and future, the health and future of their families. We learn together. Budget shopping, healthy and affordable alternatives to expensive dairy and meat, healthy cooking without a standard kitchen, smart snacking. Fables for families about stone soup, the magic that is community and the love that is created by sharing a meal.

What makes me so able to “empower” people? To think that I could do something so paternalistic as to tell SNAP recipients what and how to eat? Nothing more than my own experience.

I was raised in a typical upper middle class, suburban nuclear family in New Jersey. I had a (practically) new car when I was 17. I had new clothes at least twice a year. It was never a question that I would go to college, and that I would succeed.  I loved, and was beloved by, parents who always gave me the best they had to offer…and I have always been achingly aware that what they had to offer was astronomically different than what was offered to most of the world.

I was blessed.

And by 20, I qualified for food stamps, a fact that would not change until over seven years later. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did know that I was struggling. I went through periods where I dropped out of school (death in the family, family illnesses, things-that-are-life-and-cannot-be-foreseen) and worked 60 hours a week as a store clerk, bartender, waitress, personal shopper, et cetera. I lived with relatives. I went back to school and struggled to maintain an “A” average while working as a nanny for $130 per week. My food budget was $17 per week for over a year.

I ate a lot of brown rice. My loans piled up.

The difference, of course, was that I had resources. If I was ever truly hungry, truly cold, truly desperate, I had a family who could help me, who I could move back in with, who would buy me a new pair of shoes. Who cosigned my loans so that I could afford a chance to be successful.

The difference, for me and so many others who do not truly grasp poverty, is that I was never in a place where I was afraid I would starve to death while I worked to death.

That is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It is designed to help people, mostly mothers and families who are working as hard and as much as they can and are still in real danger of going hungry, of having their children go hungry. Seventy six percent of SNAP-receiving homes include a child, a senior, or a disabled person. These homes (1 in 7 American households) account for 83 percent of all SNAP benefits (FeedingAmerica.org). Recipients aren’t lazy, abusing the system or refusing to work—they simply do not, for whatever reason, have the resources available to them to make ends meet. Sixty percent of SNAP recipients do work, and since 1980 the program has seen the most growth among people who have college experience—eight percent in 1980 to 28 percent of all working age people with some college experience this year (Fox News).

SNAP has strict limits for unemployed adults—able bodied adults without dependents (children or seniors) are only eligible for three months of benefits during any three year period, unless they are in a job training program. You cannot just “coast” or “milk the system.” Additionally, for every dollar a SNAP participant earns, they lose 24-36 cents of benefits (FeedingAmerica.org). People cannot afford to finish their educations. People cannot afford childcare, which would enable them to do so. People cannot afford to work 60 hours at a minimum wage job (which has not been adjusted for inflation in how long?), pay their bills, feed their families, and generally improve their lives.

Let’s take an easy look at the numbers. What does one need to do to qualify for SNAP?

SNAP benefits are determined by how much income remains after rent, utilities, and necessary expenses are deducted. The average SNAP receiving household (remember, 76 percent—more than average—of which includes a child, senior, or disabled person) has a net monthly income of $338. You are not eligible for SNAP benefits unless your gross income (not net, gross is your money before taxes) is under 130% of the poverty level. A SNAP household cannot have assets totaling more than $2,000 (so, no car), and on average, a SNAP household has assets of approximately $330. These numbers have not been adjusted for inflation in over two decades (FeedingAmerica.org).

With the average SNAP household netting approximately $338 per month, it seems like a brilliant idea to cut 9 billion dollars (plus $11 billion in expiring stimulus funds) from the only program that helps them feed and shelter their families.

Nine zeroes. From households with monthly incomes of two zeroes.

The cuts were made by letting $11 billion in stimulus funds expire, and by closing a “loophole”: if they qualify, recipients can benefit from a federally funded heating aid program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Some states allow SNAP beneficiaries to deduct the utility charge from their income, even if it is only a few dollars per year. This results in approximately 850,000 homes showing a utility deduction that is larger than their actual utility bill, causing the families’ income to appear much lower, qualifying them for more benefits (it seems complicated. It is) (MotherJones.com). By closing this loophole, the Farm Bill saves nine billion dollars.

The problem with this is that restricting access to this assistance will cause states and administrators, like me, to be less able to provide help to people who need assistance, while also increasing administrative burden (which, sadly, can be a big part of the job). The scary problem is that 46 percent of recipients state that they regularly make a choice between spending money on food…or on heat. Given the recent arctic temperatures around the country, that is a real, dangerous problem. Food or warmth. Life or death.

A little of both?

This $9 billion in savings could have gone back into SNAP—or into a similar program that would focus on job creation, training, et cetera. Instead, one million households will lose $90 per month for food. Households. Not people. Not lazy adults. Children. Mothers. Seniors. Veterans. Disabled people.

With one in seven American households receiving SNAP benefits, why weren’t the legislators voting for them?

I could be them. You could be them. One paycheck is all that separates me from SNAP benefits now. One month of disability. One cause of life-that-cannot-be-prevented that sets me back, and I qualify. I have a master’s degree. I graduated magna cum laude. I am SNAP. So are you. How many paychecks do you need to miss before your resources run out?

I work with SNAP recipients every day. They are everyone. Let me repeat…

They are everyone.

You are them.

They are young and old. Tired and determined. Hopeful and without hope. Educated, dedicated, loving, happy, sad, kind people of every race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and creed. SNAP recipients are grandmothers. Veterans—from WWII to present day. Young parents, old parents, parents who would die for their children’s lives. People who are disabled, by birth or by accidents. Children. Children who are hungry and can’t do a damn thing about their circumstances. What are you going to tell them?

What are you going to tell them when they ask why they cannot be warm and full at the same time?

What would you tell your children?

Your mom?

Your veteran uncle, who risked his life for an America that decides he doesn’t need food or warmth as badly as they needed his sacrifice?

SNAP recipients are all Americans. Beyond that, more importantly, they are people. The stigmatization they face is another article entirely, but remember this…

Life-that-cannot-be-prevented happens to everyone. Circumstances change, things fall apart. Thankfully, for a lot of people, things fall right back together. But what happens when they don’t? Where is the safety net when things go utterly, horribly wrong and you are left without resources?

SNAP is the net.

We are the ones who are responsible for holding it up. We do this for each other, because we share common bonds—we have all experienced loss, love, and life. Whether we know or not how it is to feel when we are flying without a net, we want to make sure that no one ever has to.

This loss will be felt at food pantries, which are usually private organizations that struggle to fill in the gaps in the SNAP program through donations and private funding.

The best thing that you can do? Vote. Call Congress. Tell them that you are SNAP. Your mom is SNAP. Your baby daughter is SNAP. Your old granddad. Your high school best friend. We are all SNAP. Donate to the food banks—items such as tuna, canned salmon, peanut butter—things that are nutrient dense, but with a long shelf life. Send a smile, a hug, a little love—life happens.

And when it does, we take care of each other.



McDonald’s Tells Its Employees to Sign Up for Food Stamps (theatlantic.com)

Panera Bread CEO trying to live on food stamps ($4.50 per day): “I can’t even go into a Panera.” (blogs.wsj.com)

Republican-Heavy Counties Eat Up Most Food-Stamp Growth (bloomberg.com)

A Sad First: Working People Now Need Food Stamps More than Kids, Elderly (billmoyers.com)

Wal-Mart’s poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps. (dailykos.com)

Congress axes $8.6bn from food stamps in farm bill: Richer farmers get bigger subsidies in immediate snub to Barack Obama’s State of the Union call for action on inequality (theguardian.com)

The New Face of Food Stamps: Working-Age Americans (abcnews.go.com)

Bob Schieffer: “You pass a farm bill in the House. It gives billions of dollars, much of it to large corporations that own farms. It’s almost like welfare for the wealthy. But you don’t include a dollar for hungry people for Food Stamps. What kind of a message is that you’re sending?”

Colbert: If poor people want food stamps, they should become massive corporations:

The Colbert Report
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