ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.



June 2012



Why are we judging people who need help?

Written by , Posted in Politics

There’s a someecard I’ve seen going around with this quote on it:


"So you’re on food stamps, but you can afford an iPhone… Seems legit."


I’m disappointed that people feel the need to judge poor people who seek out government assistance. Sometimes it is presented as concern, sometimes it is based on innocent ignorance of the facts, and sometimes it seems like it represents a desire to project hate onto people who haven’t been as successful (or lucky) as the hater.


While food stamps are just one way the government can provide support to people, I think they’re a pretty good one to discuss, primarily because of the way they’re structured. The SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides funds for very specific food items via EBT cards. Fraud is a concern, but .



Eligibility is spelled out pretty clearly here:


In case you aren’t in the mood to flip between websites, here’s a breakdown:

·         The monthly take-home (net pay) has to be 100% of the poverty level or lower for the family size. For a family of four, that’s $1,863.

·         If you want to look at it from the gross income perspective, the monthly take-home must be under 130% of the poverty level. For a family of four, that’s an annual salary of 29,064

·         You can have some resources saved up and still be eligible for food stamps. Why? I’m guessing because the government doesn’t want to people out on the street before they ask for help (which is what I think many people who dislike government assistance would prefer, but more on that later).

·         One can only draw SNAP benefits for three months in any 36 month period without working or being enrolled in a training program to get back to work.


So, one can have something in savings (but not much), must be taking home income equivalent to about 100% of poverty level, and if unemployed, be able to get back to work or find training within three months. Those requirements seem pretty intense.


And with those requirements, what do these high rollers bring home? Well, a family of four can get UP TO $668 / month. That works out to about $5.22 per person per day for all of their food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. 


The Food Stamp Challenge

Some of you may have heard of the Food Stamp Challenge. The most famous example is Chef Mario Batali’s attempt to use only the equivalent of SNAP for his family of four for a week. He’s a chef, so he’s used to the finer things but he also has the skills to use a variety of ingredients in clever ways, and he has the benefit of time to spend on this project. He should have no problem with this. Wrong.


If someone with culinary training and lots of money to take care of the other things in life (like, say, childcare) finds it challenging, that says a few things to me. Namely, that these benefits are not only not extravagant, but they’re probably too low to really meet the need while still allowing the beneficiaries to make healthy decisions.


Some people who have been on SNAP resent the Food Stamp Challenge. Chef Batali got to stop after a week. Yes, it was a tough week for him, but he knew that after seven days he could go back to his extravagant life, filled with decadent food. People who are on SNAP out of necessity don’t have that luxury. They have to figure out how to make things work. They don’t get to ‘splurge’ on the berries their kid really wants – have you seen how expensive berries are? They’re like $4/pint, and they go bad so quickly. And if they DO save up their benefits to do something wild, like buy a generic brand cake mix, they get the stink-eye from judgmental people in line behind them.


So those receiving SNAP have shown they are making a very small amount of money, they are working (or in training for work), and they have very little by way of savings. I do not see why that should be looked down upon unless we’re less interested in the assistance provided and more interested in judging why someone needs the assistance in the first place.


Choosing Judgment

Which brings me back to the card that started this all. When I read that card, I saw a pretty disturbing world view. It’s a world view that suggests that receiving government assistance and having personal possessions (especially those that appear to be expensive) should be mutually exclusive. That people who receive government assistance should be scrutinized and ridiculed. And I see stereotypes that just flat out bum me out.


I don’t subscribe to the view that people who are poor are somehow evil, or deserve their lot in life, or have something fundamentally wrong with them. I was lucky to be born to parents who had some money, who supported my education, who saved for me to attend college, and who helped me out before I found work after graduate school. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow more virtuous or more worthy of dignity than someone whose parents didn’t provide them with the same support. And yes, I fully recognize that some people who had zero support and zero help still made awesome lives. That should be applauded and admired, but not used to say "see, I did it, why can’t YOU do it too?"


And looking at just the very basics of sentence card that inspired this posting – it makes ZERO sense for someone who has an iPhone, but then loses her job and needs assistance, to get rid of the phone. Even if all that it is good for are pre-paid minutes, selling the phone for $50 means she has $50 to spend on food but no longer has a way to let her parents know she’s alright, or to make calls looking for employment. And if she has a $25/month data plan that is part of her contract, how much sense does it make to break the contract AND lose her ability to look for work?


This short-sightedness infuriates me. That attitude is asking the person in need to cut off her nose to spite her face. It seems to be based in resentment. ‘I have an iPhone and I don’t need government assistance. Clearly that person made poor life choices and now I have to pay for it.’ Moreover, it also requires that people who need assistance live lives void of some of the simpler things.  Why should the person on food stamps not be able to buy the cake mix once in awhile? Why do we demand that people who need help be miserable while receiving it?


Maybe that person who needs assistance did make poor life choices. And maybe she didn’t. Maybe she had a job and was paying off her student loans when she was laid off. Maybe she’s trying to make the responsible decision to pay for healthcare to stave off going deeper into debt if she gets sick, and needs some help getting food for awhile. Why jump to the conclusion that someone is gaming the system?



"But what about all the FRAUD?!" Honestly – what about it? Currently SNAP fraud is estimated to be 1% ( In dollar terms, that sounds like it would be a lot. And it is – it is over 718 million dollars in fraud annually. That’s a lot of lost money!


It’s also … less than the cost of one day (ONE DAY) of the war in Iraq.


One day of the war in Iraq was more costly than a year’s worth of SNAP fraud.


I think that says a lot. It suggests that it isn’t really about the money at all. It suggests that some people are more concerned about someone else getting something they ‘don’t deserve’ than they are about why the person needs assistance in the first place. It makes me think that there are a whole lot of people out there who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.


Wrap it up, A.

We ALL need help at times. Most people I know received government assistance in the form of a subsidized student loan, because they wanted to improve their lives but didn’t have the money at the time (myself included, for graduate school). I don’t begrudge any of us that – I don’t think "damn, I want those tax dollars back", because that’s help someone needed.


We all face circumstances that test us, and sometimes those circumstances are our fault, and sometimes they aren’t. Instead of taking the common path and assuming that those people, with their food stamps (and welfare – oh god, their welfare) are somehow gaming the system, wasting YOUR tax dollar, maybe think instead about how fantastic it is that you don’t need that assistance right now, and how fantastic it is that if you do, even for just a little while, it will be there. It’s a view grounded in reality, and one that seems a lot healthier than carrying around the anger that so often comes out when this topic is discussed.


Better Reading

For a better, real-world discussion of the process of getting food stamps, including the fear and judgment, check out this article, and especially the comments. It’s pretty illuminating.

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