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:
- How to Feed Yourself for $15 a Week (note these prices represent food prices from the early 90s).
- The $21 Food Week: Is It Possible? Is It Healthy?
- Nourishment on a Desperate Income
- What Does 200 Calories Cost? The Economics of Obesity
- Bodega: Cheap Eats and Social Commentary For 25 Cents
- Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals from the US Dept of Agriculture
- Save Money by Cutting Down on Food Waste
- Encounter With a Freegan
- Should You be Ashamed to be on Public Assistance?
- Healthy, frugal eating
- Ask the Readers: Tips and Tricks to Save on Food?