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The Other America – Commentary on Food Stamps and the Economy

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Last night while I watched the news, CBS ran a feature called “The Other America.” This series is covering different aspects of our nation’s economy, from layoffs to using food stamps, and more. Right now our economy is struggling. The falling dollar and increasing oil prices are bleeding into other areas of our economy, leading to higher priced commodities that affect everyone. Especially hard hit are those who rely upon food stamps for their groceries every month.

Food stamps in America

According to the CBS video, 27.9 million Americans, or roughly 9% of the population, rely on food stamps. The average value of those food stamps is approximately $24 per person, per week (but it can vary). One woman interviewed in the segment received $369 per month for a family of 6, or just over $15 per person per week.

With higher food prices, individuals’ food stamps are running out much more quickly than they used to. The news segment was filmed at a Chicago area grocery store where people were lining up at midnight on the first of each month because this is when their food stamps automatically received deposits from the state. By the first of the month, many customers have been left with little or no food for several days because their food stamps have run out.

I have seen this phenomenon before

If you live or work on a military installation, you have probably seen it too, though likely on a lesser scale. The military gets paid the 1st and 15th of every month and the worst place to be on any military installation on the 1st or 15th is the base commissary (grocery store). By far, those are the most crowded shopping days and waiting an hour at the checkout line is common.

Many military members flock to the commissary on these days for the same reason as the people with food stamps flock to the stores – because they have run out of both food and money and they just got paid. But there is a major difference. Over the last few years, Congress has given the military a series of raises which makes things much easier for them to get by, and the problem is much less noticeable than before. The other difference is that the military has an extensive support network in place for those in need. Military members may also be eligible for Family Supplemental Subsistence Allowance which is a benefit designed to eliminate the need for military members to receive food stamps.

The food stamp issue is becoming severe

One person not being able to make ends meet could be a personal problem. Maybe he or she doesn’t know how to eat frugally or has poor money management skills. But an entire community experiencing the same problem is endemic of a larger systemic problem.

According to the CBS report, the government won’t decide on raising the amount of assistance people get from food stamps until October. Then it may take a few months before people actually see the increase. That doesn’t help the millions of people who are barely scraping by right now.

The cynic in me says, bah…

Watching the video clip for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice how many people did all their shopping on the first of the month instead of budgeting their food and allocating it to last the month. Going shopping when you are hungry has been proven to cause people to spend more money by overbuying. The video seemed to show a magnified version of this effect. People have gone without food for a few days, so they buy spend their entire month’s food budget and the cycle perpetuates itself.

The other thing I noticed was the amount of premium items and prepackaged foods filling shoppers’ carts. Giant boxes of Fruit Loops, frozen meals, cases of soda, Pillsbury pancakes, and large bags of chips and snacks were some of the items I noticed people purchase. I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone who spends his money on junk food, then complains about being broke.

But who am I to judge?

I watched this news segment from the comfort of my air conditioned house after eating a delicious meal that my wife cooked. I have never been on food stamps, though I was on unemployment for several months while I was in between jobs. Still, I never had to make the decision between paying rent or buying food. I am no one to pass judgment on anyone in this situation. Still, watching the video made me feel uneasy.

Did my negative reaction stem from the guilty feeling I had from feeling powerless to change the situation? Was my reaction based on frustration or perhaps a defensive mechanism trying to disassociate myself from the possibility of this happening to my family?

I watched the video again. I know the tricks that can be done with clever editing and I wanted to look for more details. I saw a different story the second and third time I watched the video clip. Then I watched another version of the segment that didn’t make it on air. These changed my view. I still saw the people buying junk food and blindly placing blame for the situation.

But I also noticed a mother and her children shopping with coupons from the store flier. I noticed people comparison shopping and buying inexpensive food staples in bulk. While some people were bitter and looking for someone to blame, others were being proactive and doing the best they could.

The fact is, I don’t know enough about anyone’s situation to play judge. Even if I did know their situation, it would not be my place to do so.

Is there a solution to the food stamp problem?

Matters as complex as the national economy are well above my head. I understand some basic economic principles, but I don’t have the answers to fix the economy, lower food prices, lower gas prices, or raise the value of the dollar. No single person does. Other related societal issues such as poverty, health care, and education are similarly complex. There simply are no one-size-fits-all answers.

More money is obviously needed. But throwing more money into the pot merely places a band-aid on the wound. It may stop bleeding, but until you stitch it up, the wound won’t heal. But what heals the wound?

Though I don’t have a cure for the problem, I think there are many things people in this situation can do to ease their situation. One of them is education about how to prepare nutritious and inexpensive meals. There are many nutritious staples that are relatively inexpensive, filling, and last a long time. Meat is expensive and can be eaten sparingly to save money. But how do you get this information to the masses in a way that people will listen and make life altering changes?

What about teaching basic financial management principles such as budgeting, banking, and living frugally? What about job training and educational opportunities to give people better employment options? How can we get that information to the people who need it the most? And how do we pay for it? Again, I don’t have the answers.

This problem is simply too large and complex for one person to answer and I won’t be so arrogant as to think I could solve the problems if given the power to do so. The food stamp problem is only one issue in a long line of problems that are starting to crop up due to the current economic situation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Note: you can read a follow up article here: Food Stamps in America – Readers Weigh In.

Here are some related articles to further the conversation:


Published or updated May 31, 2011.
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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Momma

I’m really glad you posted this. As someone who grew up in a house with a single low income mother and 3 siblings, food stamps were just a part of our life. We shopped at a discount grocery store and stretched the funds as far as possible. I can remember more than one time that our pantry had to be supplimented by food banks and the “government cheese” line.

Luckily, I’ve done better in my adult life than my mother did, and haven’t had to shop using food stamps in years. But, the lessons I learned about being a thrifty shopper and how to make a little bit last a long time have not left me.

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2 Llama Money

I’m a natural cynic, and think that *most* people on government assistance programs like food stamps, could get off of them with some diligence. Working more ( new job, second job, third job, whatever ), spending less, budgeting more, eating a lot of rice, whatever.

Being perpetually broke and relying on the government is no way to live, especially when things can be done to improve your situation.

But then again, there are situations where government help is the only thing keeping starvation at bay. People who are doing everything possible to make ends meet, and being unable to do so on their own. I do feel for these people, though they are in the *extreme* minority.

A tough situation. If we spend the money ( that the gov’t doesn’t have ) to increase assistance, then the truly needy get help, but the lazy do also. Tough decisions to make, for sure.

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3 Kristen

This is a very interesting post. First of all, food prices are really high, and it’s getting harder for a lot of us to feed our families. I noticed when I shopped the other day even the price of potatoes has gone up quite a bit in just the past 2 weeks (but that might be because of flooding in the midwest).

I absolutely would not deny people who need assistance food stamps. However, (and I’m sorry that I’m passing some judgement here), I get really aggravated when I see a mom or dad at the grocery store using food stamps to buy a bunch of junk food, like chips and soda, and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy lottery tickets and cigarettes. I think people need to do a better job of getting their priorities in order for the sake of their children.

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4 NCN

First, I like the fact that you were honest in your post.. so I’ll be honest in my reply.

Before I even thought about having a child, I would be sure that I could feed and clothe that child. And, I would work a dozen jobs before my kids would go hungry. Heck, I’d steal before my kids would go hungry.

Food stamps create an unnatural economic situation.. Look at it this way… If 9% of people are using food stamps, then (certain) food companies know that 9% of their merchandise will be sold, regardless of price. So, food stamps actually encourage higher prices. If we are going to give people money, let’s just give them money. That way, at least, the market could work (supply and demand, etc…)

For $369, I can buy a lot of potatoes, ground beef, dried beans, and rice…
Might not be the most diverse diet, but it’ll get me by…cloth diapers, water, etc..

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5 deepali

I have so many conflicting thoughts on this. On the one hand, I want to scream when I see people buying cigarettes and junk food on food stamps. On the other hand, I go into my local Whole Foods and see someone buying a very balanced diet on food stamps and think that it’s great that they have that opportunity. So what to do? I personally take the same POV as I do with crime and punishment. I’d rather protect the innocent, even if it means occaisonally protecting the guilty, kwim?

That being said, there are some ways we can be smarter about this – nutrition and budget education can be a requirement (maybe child rearing too?). Food stamps can be made more specific (ie, certain amount of $ has to be spend on X). “Probation” periods can be set whereby a case manager reviews the grocery list, etc.
I think the key is to incentivize the system as opposed to making it punitive.

I teach nutrition to lower SES communities, and have done the same for budget management in the past. People really do want to do the right thing (for the most part).

And a comment for NCN above – I wish everyone really sat down and worked out the financial details of having children like you did!

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6 Nancy

A very thought provoking post. Thank you. This has given me a chance to re-evaluate my opinions and look at more sides to the problem.

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7 Nicole J.

I am of two minds on this issue. I believe that all people should have access to nutritious foods, which is the point of food stamps. I have also worked in grocery stores and seen that a lot of the time food stamps are used for junk foods. But we have to keep in mind that junk foods tend to offer a high calorie to cost ratio, so you can fill up on less money. Mind you, the calories are often from trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, but they are calories nonetheless. I agree that there should be an educational component to public assistance programs, so families can learn how to purchase and prepare nutritious foods. But I don’t think we should go around telling people what they can buy.

It is truly a thorny issue, but one we need to discuss and improve.

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8 Katie

If anyone thinks you really get “more money” to put in your pocket via foodstamps when you have more children, please think again.

I have had foodstamps before. Before I get blasted, let me tell you that I did work TWO jobs. It just wasn’t enough.

I guess I could have worked three or four jobs to make up the difference and never sleep or see my children, but I chose to forgo the third and fourth job so I could actually have some part in raising my children.

Now, when I gave birth to both of my children, I was in the military. After nine years of service, I decided to get out of the military. Many factors came into play in this decision, one namely being that I certainly can not raise my children if I die in Iraq.

So now I am going to school full-time, working two jobs, and raising two children, all while being 700 miles from any family or support network. Trust me, I would love to move closer, but the truth is, I could not afford to live where my family lives.

Back to the food stamps though…. the State I live in deposits the money on an access card… it looks like a credit card. You can not buy cigarettes on this card. Heck, you can’t even buy toliet paper or soap on the card. The cash registers automatically take those purchases out of the “food” total when you swipe your card.

I agree that purchasing “good” food should come before “junk” food, but please take into account that some people are working two or more jobs and guess what? They DO NOT HAVE THE TIME TO COOK FROM SCRATCH because they are BUSY TRYING TO MAKE ENOUGH MONEY FOR RENT.

“But for the grace of God go I”……

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9 plonkee

The problem with Americans (and not just Americans) buying excessive junk food isn’t exactly limited to people on food stamps, is it?

Why is it that you’d expect the people with the least income and probably the least education, who have the lowest expectations of fulfilling the American Dream to do better than most of middle America?

Personally, as a socialist and a capitalist, I think you’d be better off letting the market dictate the price by giving people cash instead of stamps. At the end of the day, everyone’s got to eat after all.

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10 Kristen

@Katie – I, for one, certainly don’t think that more children equals more income. And I’ve known people who have had a genuine need for public assistance. I have no problem helping those who truly need it.

@Plonkee – You’re certainly right about the problem of junk food. I don’t expect for those with lesser income or education to do better. However, it’s frustrating to see young children being raised on potato chips and Pepsi. I think that’s where some of the other posters’ comments about education come in. We should educate those with less so they are better equipped to make the smartest choices possible. I know some people with incredibly tight budgets who do a wonderful job of feeding their children nutritional meals. But, it takes some knowledge and practice to get the hang of it.

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11 Jarhead

I have to agree with Llama. The majority of people on social assistance could very well get off if they wanted to. But most people in those situations will just perpetuate the cycle and continue to have more children so that they can get more money, but enough on that.

Now to deepali and those that are complaining about using food stamps for junk food. Again I am going to have to agree with this and I can think of one way that it could be curbed. If the government were to replace food stamps with vouchers (just like WIC) then you could control what the government’s money is spent on. Just give vouchers that are for the purchase of 10 Lbs of potatoes, 3 lbs of cheese, a certain amount of boxes or bags of cereal etc etc etc. This also helps rising food prices in that no matter how much the price of that 10 Lbs of potatoes or any other item goes up they still have the voucher for that amount of food.

The Jarhead

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12 Jarhead

Nicole I disagree if we, the public, are paying for it through our taxes, I feel that we should be telling them what they can or cannot buy with our money.

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13 Mrs. Micah

Katie makes a good point about the limitations of a food stamp debit card.

A few years ago, I was doing the shopping for a housebound woman with a serious illness. She was in the food stamp program. Anyway, when did her grocery shopping, I’d have to buy toilet paper and cigarettes (she had emphysema but still wouldn’t quit, maybe couldn’t) separately from the rest because I couldn’t possibly buy them on food stamps.

So if people on food stamps are buying cigarettes, they probably still can’t afford them but it’s their own money.

Also a good point, Katie, about the convenience food. Besides being housebound, this lady was unable to prepare her own food. So I bought her microwaveable meals and fruit for the most part. Little or no preparation needed.

I think the system is broken on the whole but can’t offer any solutions for that. Just where it’s touched my life.

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14 Eponine

Imagine how terrifying it would be if you didn’t have enough money to feed your family. Sure, some lazy good-for-nothings are probably taking advantage of the system. But other people are working hard and still not making it. (Like Katie who posted earlier. And Katie, don’t get discouraged. Your education will pay off in the long run.)
It would be great if all high school students were required to take some sort of class or workshop on shopping, budgeting, and nutrition. I had to take economics in high school, but I don’t remember learning anything like this. (You know… something actually useful!)
As far as the junk food, yes, it’s a waste of money. But a lot of us buy things we don’t need. I certainly didn’t need the flavored fizzy water I bought this morning. Perhaps one reason people spend money on chips and things like that is that they can feel “just like everyone else” buying Doritos or whatever.
Cigarettes are a different matter. I used to work with someone who took 10 smoke breaks a day (and told me that she paid $200 a month for cable and internet), and constantly complained about how she had no money. Gee, I wonder why?

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15 plonkee

@Eponine:
I think that your ‘just like everyone else’ thing hits on a really good point. It’s not like people on foodstamps don’t know what everyone else eats. Most people follow the crowd, because well that’s how the crowd is formed.

As Ryan noted, not everyone is doing foodstamps badly, just like not everyone is up to their eyeballs in credit card debt.

@Mrs. Micah:
I also thought foodstamps were well-named and that you couldn’t buy cigarettes with them (and presumably not alcohol either). I am also under the impression that you can’t buy hot food with them. And, if you don’t have the ability or facilities to cook, then you’re going to be buying a lot of ready meals and so on as you say.

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16 Pete

I am a bit conflicted about this whole idea of food stamps, etc. I do genuinely think that there are a lot of people out there who need the help, but I know for a fact that there are a lot of people out there who just take advantage of the system as well. My dad worked at a local food shelf for 20 years, and a lot of people coming in for assistance and food were people who were homeless with mental health issues, drug addicted, gange members and so on. And then there were those who were sincerely trying to get themselves out of their bad situations – single mothers just trying to make it by. Folks like that I have no problem giving them a helping hand, I just think that the system gets gamed way more than people realize.

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17 Curious Cat Investing Blog

Very nice post. It would surprise me if you find a large program that doesn’t have things to criticize. But overall the food stamp program seems to strike a reasonable balance between the various issues (limited resources, rigid rules, need, rewarding farmers [a big part of the votes in congress to sustain the program over the years have been farming district congressmen],…).

I am all for coming up with ideas on how to improve the program but I am also for continuing the program. I do believe government spending (we are taxing our future way way way to much for our current spending) needs to be cut but I think this program should be continued and is very small (in government $ figures).

It is easy to forget (for many that are wealthy) how tough it can be. I would love it if I could make those idiots that say they are middle class (and don’t know how they can survive on just $180,000 a year) to get some experience about what that really means to survive on say $35,000 for year.

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18 plonkee

Erm, last I checked homeless people with mental health issues had serious problems trying to hold down jobs that pay money that might buy food. It’s a lot easier than I like to think to end up in a bad place – which is why every developed country has a safety net (e.g. food stamps).

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19 stngy1

With 62,000 people losing their jobs last month, it’s apparent things are dire. Food stamps were originally introduced to replace Food Banks which provided mostly surplus foods and items of dubious nutritional value. Unfortunately, the laws prohibited providing nutritional education even within the same building. I don’t know if that is still true, but those chronically on Food Stamps (I would guess a very small percentage) could certainly use some education. I would bet the remainder find it hard to believe they’ll be needing Food Stamps for long, and aren’t ready to totally reinvent their eating habits for what they hope is a short term crisis.

Oh, and to reiterate you CANNOT BUY cigarettes, paper goods, even diapers, with Food Stamps.

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20 Vanessa

I wanted to make a comment about your section about the military. My husband and I are previous military. These raises you speak of, are very little, almost nothing. Once a year, at the year mark my husband may get an extra $50.00 added to his pay check, maybe. I am aware that ‘Every penny counts’.

The raises never really helped and the commisaires are still insane. Everyone shops on the 1st and the 15th. If you go on the 3rd, it is almost a ghost town. All of our friends who are still military, still live pay check to pay check. If I call on pay day, their grocery shopping.

There are benefits to being in the military but the pay is definetely not one of them.

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21 Lynnae

After I read your blog post, my first thought was why can’t we make food stamps more like WIC? And I see Jarhead already thought of that.

With WIC you can only buy what’s on your voucher, and it’s all nutritional food. You also have to attend a certain number of educational classes, if you want your WIC benefits to continue. If you don’t attend the classes (Usually one hour of classes per 6 months of benefits), you don’t get the benefits.

I understand the argument that people just want some sense of normalcy in their lives, so they buy doritos and soda, but if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. I’d love to cook gourmet every night, but I don’t, because I don’t have the money.

As far as not having time to cook from scratch, there are a lot of things you can do with pasta, rice, beans, etc, that don’t take a lot of time. Crockpots are always great for beans.

Whatever the answer is, and I don’t know what it is, there’s got to be something more effective than what we’re doing now.

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22 RC@ThinkYourWayToWealth

Really great post, and very thought provoking. The problem with the food stamp program, like many other things in life, is that there are people who use it honestly, and there are people who try to game the system. Some people, and they come from all income levels, try to cheat on their taxes. Others are honest. As many people have, I have been in line behind people using the food stamp card who are talking on cell phones, buy dvd’s, electronics, etc.,and pay cash for that, but use the card for food, and then load it up in a lexus or other luxury car. I have met people who live in 250K houses who receive government assistance, b/c they have kids,the mother does not work and they are not married- one couple even offered my friend government cheese b/c they had too much and could not eat it all! But should those who are cheating the system cause it to be stopped when there are people who really need it? I don’t think so, but I don’t have a solution either.

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23 plonkee

You know, I think I hang round in the wrong circles. Lots of people seem to know many benefit cheats, but I’ve never met a single one, or heard a story (IRL) of people gaming the system that was anything other than hearsay twice removed.

The problem is less people gaming the system, and more that the help that food stamps (and other similar programs) gives doesn’t cover everything that people really need. And as Ryan says, there’s probably no solution to that.

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24 Trixie

Hi,

We eat very well on a about $1 more per week than the average food stamp recipent. Our meals do not consist of prepackaged junk and high fat meats. We eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Even with the increase in grocery prices we are still able to eat well due to planning and careful shopping.

In my opinion (which is based on 8 years of ringing up orders for food stamp recipients at a grocery store) most buy junk and do not spend careful attention to menu planning or nutrition. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but in my experience it is true. Sadly, I can count on one hand the number of food stamp customers that came with a list, calculator, coupons or appeared to give some thought to buying sale items. Those people have my admiration for choosing to make the best use of what they have.

Take Care,

Trixie

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25 Todays Budget

I’m joining many on this thread around not wanting to be too harsh but mad as h*ll when I see people in the store buying junk food, paying cash for lottery tickets all the while on their way to Type 2 Diabetes which everyone else will have to pay for. I won’t even get into the issue of people getting food stamps who aren’t here legally.

I’ve watched one family go from the grocery store with food stamps to the Best Buy next door and buy a flat-panel TV. ARGH!

I grew up in a town where there were 2nd and 3rd generation welfare families. The attitude of the children was – why work? Yet these people had new TV’s.

What happened to responsibility of one’s self? Pride?

Part of the issue is the name-less, face-less way we distribute food stamps. Before these were deposited into an account or mailed, you had to go pick these up. The mere act of having to see the same person month after month to get this service did have an impact. If it shamed people into getting off of food stamps – so be it.

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26 David

I think society needs to look at the reasons why people are on welfare and work on fixing that rather than just continuing to come up with new ways to give out foodstamps/WIC/monetary assistance, etc. I am all for giving help to anyone who needs it, but there is a much bigger problem going on behind the scenes that creates these situations with many of these people, and maybe that should be worked on as well.

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27 Karen

Jarhead,
Unfortunately, your immature and narrow-minded thinking is shared by many. The majority of people did go off assistance back in 1995 when Welfare Reform came into existance. Now, the people we see are the old, the mentally and physically disabled and the under-educated. We can help some people in their job search, but not all are employable. These people need our help, not blanket statements about welfare. Try arguing for higher Social Security payments to keep Americans from living in institutions, instead of condeming those who struggle to survive in a world without many choices. They are already subjected to where they can live and work and shop, now you want to tell these people what they can buy, too? Don’t you think we have enough governmental intervention in our lives?

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28 BookWitch

Dear Shamed,
There is an amazing two-day workshop entitled, Bridges Out of Poverty. This workshop is given all over the United States and should be required for every single American, Democrat or Republican. The workshop specifically talks about generational poverty and why the “things” they own are a reflection of who they are. The workshop will answer many of your questions, leave you asking more and instill a drive in you that wants to make a difference. It is an amazing workshop. Please look for it in your area.

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29 stngy1

TOTALLY agree with Karen!
Don’t be so quick to judge! I have a son, extraordinarily bright, but probably unemployable due to disabilities AND will need food stamps and GA. Hopefully he can shop appropriately, but I wouldn’t fault him “falling off the wagon” occasionally! He can’t drive, so “go in, stand in line, be humiliated, to pick up the stamps? PLEASE. We would love to leave him a fortune, but it’s been pretty expensive just to make it while getting the care he needs. I fear the day we can’t provide for him.

Life can be rough and bleak at times. As a society, we treat our weakest and most helpless pretty much as trash. I know, I see it. Save your anger for the profiteers who make millions while paying little to no taxes for the societal benefits they receive.

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30 Mrs Micah's Mom

I remember before there were Food Stamps. When I was a young child, we never got up from the table full except on holidays. My mother cooked frugally. There were no prepared meals in stores. (TV dinners came later.) When we couldn’t afford salad stuff, she would gather burdock leaves and dandelion greens. We all gathered roadside fruits and nuts. I think my father would have been ashamed to take Food Stamps.

But we had it good compared to some people. We were always a bit hungry, but we were never starving. Some people were. That was why so many of us, even Conservatives, supported the idea of Food Stamps when it was introduced. I had heard that the program had just about eliminated starvation, though not malnutrition.

I’d like to see people use the stamps more wisely, but I surely would not like to see the program stopped.

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31 Jarhead

@ Vanessa I will agree with you that the pay in the military is not the greatest, but I have to say it isn’t bad either. As long as you live within your means even an E-1 in base housing with a wife (not working) and a newborn baby can eat. He can even afford to get a loan for a cheap yet reliable car and get to and from work and even pay for his own gas. He can also afford to maintain his uniforms and buy his wife clothes as needed. I know this because I have helped that young Marine do all that within the last few months. It took me many years to figure out how to live without and within my means but it is possible.

@ Karen “Don’t you think we have enough governmental intervention in our lives?”

That is your quote and yes I agree I do think that the government is too involved in the lives of the American public. SO why don’t we have the government butt out of our lives and everyone else’s? Then my tax dollars can go to better things like repairing bridges and roads and helping public schools instead of paying for groceries for all the people on food stamps.

Jarhead

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32 Ryan

I appreciate everyone’s comments. I initially avoided commenting to allow everyone to have their say. There are some interesting and valuable comments, and I appreciate everyone’s candor.

I wrote a follow-up article, Food Stamps in America, which was based on several comments and thoughts I had on this topic over the weekend.

Thanks for the great comments everyone.

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33 deepali

You know, I just want to clarify something. Most people on foodstamps do the right thing (ie, buy the right thing). Just because one is poor doesn’t mean one makes bad decisions (and the reverse is also true!). But for that matter, we all have the right to make bad decisions. I am always appalled when I hear Americans place restrictions on people’s freedom to choose. Such irony.

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34 Grey

Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

Of course, I also get angry when I watch people pay out their own hard-earned money for junk food and cigarettes (our tax dollars also go to funding healthcare, after all!), then climb into their Hummers and drive 15 mph over the speed limit. The world is full of stereotypes.

I wanted to add a link to the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, designed for food stamp recipients, and also point out that WIC and food stamps are also available for use in farmer’s markets. Also, you can read up on how the costs of food for each family were developed here.

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35 Dana Seilhan

Couple of thoughts:

1. Having been a very low-income person for the past several years, I can attest to how *frustrating* it is to never be able to afford anything beyond the basics. You wind up sabotaging whatever budget you might have on a fairly regular basis because you’re SO FED UP with not being able to get goodies that you just say “screw it” and go ahead and buy something. Even if all you can manage is junk food.

So I’m not convinced people buy junk because they don’t know better. Actually that’s a common belief about the poor, but people aren’t poor because they’re ignorant, they’re poor because they don’t have enough money to survive and thrive. Any other problems they might have are secondary: There are stupid/ill-educated middle-class and rich people, mentally ill middle-class and rich people, drug-abusing middle-class and rich people, etc. It’s the same for being homeless, too.

Actually, there are quite a lot of people ignorant about proper human nutrition in this country, and they’re convinced they know what they need to know, and most of them are in the middle and upper classes. Which leads me to:

2. I tried doing the “nutritious” grains and beans thing. I really did. It made me pack on fifty pounds, causes my blood sugar to spike and crash, and leaves me feeling like crap generally. I have Native American ancestry and diabetes runs in my family. I CANNOT SUBSIST ON STARCHES AND VEGGIES. Meat HAS to be more than a condiment for me. (I’m not yelling at you, I am laying heavy emphasis on this for anyone who might read it. Understand me perfectly: I am not making this up.) The proper macronutrient composition for most human beings–yes, most–is relatively low-carb, moderate-to-low protein, and high fat. There are a few variations on that theme in the gene pool, but they’re newcomers on the scene. *Most* of us have to live this way for optimal health.

But the government programs are set up to force the poor to eat off the agricultural surplus we crank out every year. All that extra grain and beans the government subsidizes have to go somewhere. It’s for that same reason that the current Food Guide Pyramid was invented. But ask your grandparents, if they’re still around, what they believed about starches and sugars when they were growing up. You’ll hear a different story. Heck, just look up the old Four Food Groups system–that alone had people eating a lot less grain than they do now.

Not having enough money for what we actually need in foodstuffs is just the tip of the iceberg.

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36 Ryan

Dana,

Thank you for your perspective. It’s easy for those of us who have never been in this situation to say what “could be” or “should be.”

The fact is, there are no easy solutions or answers. This has been very educational for me and for others, I’m sure.

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37 Value For Your Life

I’ve read Ryan’s article, and every comment posted. This is a very interesting discussion to follow, and there seem to be many perspectives from many areas of the population.

I’m not familiar with food stamps being a Canadian, but we do have certain tax realted initatives as part of our social security net for individuals and families below a certain income. In place of food stamps to a certain degree, we also have food banks set up in many (even very small) communities.

I do agree that improper eating habits are one problem that spans across the board. Educating our society as a whole is probably a gargantuan task, but one big part of the solution. I’ve always wondered about setting up quick information sessions and cooking demontrations at the grocery stores themselves would be part of the solution? People have to go to the store anyway. As someone who loves food, works many hours, and keeps a tight food budget, I know that preparing inexpensive, healthy meals in a very short amount of time is possible–it does require an investment of time and knowledge to get the hang of it though.

One other point that I would like to bring up is the shrinking size of food products on the part of manufaturers. Not only are prices going up, but package size is going down. It’s been going on for a little while now. I think that is a topic of discussion that may become more popular over the upcoming months. Living Almost Large is a blog that recently wrote a post called “Secret Food Increase” which talks a bit more about it.

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38 Ryan

Value For Your Life,

Thank you for adding an international perspective. There are food banks in the US and other places such as churches, soup kitchen’s, etc, where people can get free meals.So there is additional assistance for people as well.

I’ve read about and seen the shrinking food package sizes, and that wouldn’t really be a problem if the prices remained the same. I guess it is an ugly side effect of inflation.

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39 LargeTalons

Arg, why is it the governments job to feed people who cannot feed themselves? Let me say that I am in favor of a safety net to help people get back on their feet in cases of life changing events, but this needs to be a temporary situation. I like the vouchers idea, or even better yet, a food bank where only cheap staples are provided for the truly needy. Why do we allow people to live off the government their whole life? This is a disservice to everyone involved. We perpetuate poverty by subsidizing these peoples behaviors. Want to end poverty? How about we provide opportunity and motivation for people to lift themselves out of poverty by providing incentive to attend college and get a freaking job? Why don’t we pay for people to go to school instead of handing them money to buy chips? Trust me, if you told someone that you were going to stop giving them money for food in a certain number of years, but you would also pay for them to go to school or job training, we’d have a lot less people begging for food. Lets help these people get some freaking self respect and pride by helping them support themselves and their families. I guess we’re too busy thinking up other ways we can support people their whole lives… wake up people… IT ISN’T WORKING.

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40 Ryan

Large Talons,

To a degree, you have a point. But there are some people who are limited by disabilities, old age, or other factors and cannot support themselves.

I am a fan of the idea “teach a man to fish,” but it doesn’t always work.

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41 LargeTalons

Sure, I have sympathy for those who cannot support themselves through no fault of their own. Like I said, I support a safety net for sure. Really, I believe that there should be a better safety net in this country. I think we should have taxpayer supported catastrophic insurance for everyone. I think this includes high deducible health insurance and disability, and yes I still think we need social security. This is much different than handing out checks to people who are entirely able to work or get educated.

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42 Ryan

Large Talons, I agree.

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43 Kristyn

It’s easy for someone who doesn’t rely on government money to talk about those using assistance. My family is given $140 a month for good, for a family of four. That’s roughly $35 a month per person to live off of. Now, I know you think it’s possible to live off of that, but it’s not. You should try it sometime! We love how healthy we feel after our 5 days of nothing but ramen noodles waiting for our next payment. My husband works around 60 hours a week, I barely see him and he barely see’s his children.. so don’t talk about how we can work 3 jobs and eat a lot of rice. How dare you. I’d love to go back to work, but with the cost of daycare, nearly my entire paycheck would go to someone to care for my children. Not to mention I don’t trust anyone with my kids with all the reports of child abuse and neglect. I was severely abused by a babysitter for years, I don’t want my children in that situation.
You know what needs to happen? DCF needs to go through all the cases and boot the lazy people off the program forever. Those families (like my neighbors) who have more than 3 children and NOBODY WORKS… they get around $900-$1500 a MONTH for groceries. Meanwhile, I never see my husband – all of our bills are paid, but we’re still starving. We don’t buy junk, even if we could afford it we wouldn’t.. Unfortunately until the economy gets better, we have no choice but to eat crap for food. I’m stick of hearing people talking negatively about our situation. Yeah, we have a car that we could sell for extra cash, but then how will my husband get to work? How will I take my kids to the doctor? How long will that $5000 cash last with all our bills? Most of you have it better than us. Stop passing judgement on those who are working their asses off trying to get by who need food stamps. I’m not popping out kids left and right.. We shouldn’t have to live off of rice & ramen noodles. I thought America was supposed to be the greatest country on Earth? Well, the way things are – I’d rather be somewhere else that actually cared about their own people, rather than the welfare of other countries. Put your own people before others America. Maybe we can rebuild our schools after we “rebuild” Iraq.

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44 mama D

Very nice thoughts. So many folks that write on this subject are so angry and mean. Last year when the bottom fell out of realestate suddenly in our area of the country, that left my husband pretty high and dry as a commercial broker. When totally broke, we went on food stamps. We live frugally anyway because I am a stay at home mom and we have more than the average number of children. One of my big questions is why are food stamps such an issue and free government schooling is not? We have chosen to educate our children ourselves. Saves the taxpayers a ton of money by doing so. We have graduated three sons from highschool and the deans list is no stranger to them in college. I have a few more kids to finish educating yet and I know I am doing this country a big favor in doing so. This country is not better served by my putting my children in the local school at all of our expense for a shot-in-the-dark of an education while I go out and work some minimum wage job to help put food on the table while my husband continues the hunt for a job that will pay for the barest of our needs. Also the attitudes of our neighbors is not ready for a deep recession. Realizing that we will not be able to fill our oil tank for heat this winter, we tried to get wood this week. Two seperate properties that are in our area have been logged in the past year. They have dead, dry scrub wood left on them. We contacted both parties asking to remove wood from the ground for use in our home this winter. Even though we could give tons of references from the locals around here and in fact the one party personally knows us, we were denied by both property owners. Reasons? “My migrants will see you and then they will want to come get some. We are having the local fire department come burn the scrub wood in a month or so.” The other is living in Hawaii now and said he would have to be on the property personally. What have we come to? We do not want to go to a local charity and plead for some oil for our furnace. We will go cold first. We do have blankets and will pile them on. At least the food stamps will get us fed till the income starts rolling again.

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45 Ryan

Mama D: Thank you for your comment. The sagging real estate market is affecting many people and I am sorry to hear it is affecting your family. A good friend of mine is a commercial mortgage broker and has not earned anything in three months. The problem for him is that he works on commission, so he cannot apply for unemployment because he has a job, even if he is not earning anything. The situation is a rough one for him and his family, and many other families in a similar situation.

I’m sorry the landowners would not let you gather the scrub from their property. From their perspective, I can only assume it is to avoid having multiple people swarming their property or prevent potential lawsuits. I know it seems unreasonable, but from their perspective, they are protecting themselves.

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46 jane

I read a lot of the comments about people on food stamps. I used to feel the same way I thought people on food stamps were to lazy to work and I had to much pride to get food stamps.I worked for 20 years and not once in that time did I get any public assistance.However my luck changed I became disabled and had to sign up for social security disability.I had paid in ss for 20 years and I thought I WOULD GET MY DISABILITY PRETTY QUICK AFTER ALL I WAS PARALIZED FROM THE WAIST DOWN. Wrong ss told me my condition was severe but they didn’t think it would last a year. I tried for 6 years my doctors didn’t think I was able to work they signed papers for me every month to get loans paid .They would not have done that if they thought I was able to work. After 6 years they decided I was unable to work but by then I didn’t have in enough credits to draw ss. so I was put on ssi with ssi you get medicaid and food stamps. I called the ss and told them I didn’t want ssi that ssi is like welfare people that have never worked can draw ssi I wanted what I had paid into for 20 years. I WAS TOLD THAT i was better off drawing ssi because I could get medicaid, if I was put on ss disability I would have to wait 2 years before I could get medicare.So now I draw ssi and I get medicaid and food stamps.Please don’t think you are to good to get food stamps or that you would die before you would be seen paying with food stamps we never know what is going to happen to us , you could be struck down by a disease or in a bad accident and you could be in the same boat as I am.Thats whats wrong with most people today they think they are 10 feet tall and bullet proof but you are not.So when you see people using food stamps don’t critize them or make fun of them instead thank God that you still have a job and are able to go to work ever day. Ask yourself if I GET SICK and can’t work how long could my family live on my savings believe me drs bills and medicine would eat it up in no time.

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47 Nikko

I was on foodstamps. My husband and I worked for the same company, and we were both laid off at the same time. (A month after our wedding, no less!)

Two people. $369 a month. It was more than enough for us to make it last. We shopped like our grandmothers were with us every time. I had NEVER eaten healthier than when we were on foodstamps. We felt like it was our responsibility not to waste the taxpayers money on helping us. We were only on benefits for a few months, but not needing to purchase groceries out of pocket kept us from being homeless. Those foodstamps saved our lives, and we were grateful for them.

I don’t know in what universe people are getting the pitiful amounts of money that they say they’re getting, but that’s wasn’t the reality for my family.

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48 Nikko

Wow, I really should have read all of the posts before I wrote, because my outrage flared a little.

My husband had a Blackberry while we were on foodstamps. It was a gift from his mother and father, who also paid the bill. The Blackberry was free with the plan, and the reason we had it… wait for it… is that a telephone was a luxury we couldn’t afford! We lived an hour away from his parents, and they knew we were in the process of getting evicted and moving in to my sisters home. They wanted to be able to talk to us if something went wrong.

We also have a car. It’s a 1993 with the trunk caved in due to a hit and run while we were at the grocery store. The car is literally falling apart (I’ve seen pieces go flying from my read view mirror before), but had I not sold MY car to make ends meet (we knew we’d get more money for my car), we would have been in the “you sure have a nice car, poor girl!” category. We would get money every week ($20, which was a LOT for us, since we were now living rent free) for our babysitting, so we could gas up the car.

As I said, we lived with my sister. She’s a divorced mother of 3, and two of her children have special needs. She often didn’t have the time to shop. Sometimes she’d give us money and ask us to pick up a DVD or cigarettes or beer. Was it for my husband and I? HELL NO! Were we going to refuse to do a favor for someone who opened her home for us? HELL NO!

I am a coupon-clipping machine, a trait I learned from my grandmother. I’ve saved $80 on groceries I’ve spent $200 for, and for healthy food that fed us for most of the month. And now my husband is in the military, training to protect our country in times of need. Now that I no longer need foodstamps, I can say in all honesty: I don’t regret accepting the help we needed. My taxes over the previous years, and in all the years to come, will more than make up for a few months assistance.

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49 missyoung

I know I’m commenting on an old post, but I too have read through all the comments and it is very easy to tell who has never been in a situation where they needed to turn somewhere for assistance. Seems to me like the majority of people make vast assumptions about those receiving assistance, mainly that they are lazy (don’t work), dumb (don’t shop wisely with benefits), etc etc.

The fact is, I’m more and more convinced that the people who take advantage of things like FoodShare are a minority in comparison to everyone that really needs help. Without going into personal details, let’s just say it wasn’t my goal in life to some day get food stamps for groceries, that’s not what I dreamed about when I was a kid. But especially in this economy, I can personally testify that things happen you don’t expect, you do your best to get through it and improve your situation and if you need help in the meantime, so be it.

Oh and another thing…for those who’s advice is for homeless, poor people to “get a job,” tell me what success you’ve observed with that recommendation, I wonder how a prospective employer with hundreds of overqualified applicants for a position (many are young and fresh out of college) would view that homeless person’s resume?? Yes they need jobs but it’s not like you can snap your fingers and have a job with a livable wage…you have to work your way up little by little if you’re in that circumstance. SO very grateful to see it can be done, but there is SO much truth to saying you need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you judge them.

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50 concern

This is all such a case by case scenario.. its difficult to place an opinion on food stamp recipients as a whole. I am a single mother of three, father left, sob story blah blah blah. It’s ok. We make do just fine. With help. I work 40 hours a week. I have 1 hour with my children before drop off at school, and 1 1/2 hours with them in the evening before bed time. All of my day is work, all if theirs is school and aftercare. Our evenings consist of three showers, homework, and scarfing down dinner before 8:30. That is our life. If you can call it that. I think of it more as survival. We do receive food stamps. And gave for the past 2 years. Without them we could not eat a nutritional diet. For those of you who would like me to feed my 8,7,and 3 year old children a diet consisting of rice and potatoes…no. simply no. Children need a balanced nutritional diet to stay healthy and grow. Although my family does not eat processed foods, I can definitely understand that time is an issue..and fast food is just that, fast. I find that many people are just as offended when food stamps recipients purchase real foods, such as red meats and organic milk, whole pastas and such, which are for some god awful reason unfairly expensive. Really, a can of chicken noodle soup is about a dollar. Buy some chicken, broth, veggies, noodles, seasonings.. and while you have a meal that I would approve of… The cost is obviously higher. Also the time involved, the extended cooking time ( higher utilities ) makes a difference in a busy low income household. I get it. I don’t choose it for ourselves, but.. either way..healthy or junk.. there is a problem. We are very fortunate to have a government who takes a little from US all ( yes me too) and keeps the homeless from the streets, feeds the hungry, and heals the poor and ill. In many countries the poor die in the middle of the road.. they stand and beg.. their children beg.. I think if a percentage of our taxes prevents a country of poverty..we are doing a good thing. And for all of US.. karma. She is proud. You’re doing a good thing. While many take advantage.. many are in need. Those who take advantage have a karma of their own.. and will receive a spanking in due time.

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