shit you don’t know about food stamps: a guest post!

21 08 2011

when i was little, we were on food stamps, and i they looked like this. now you get a fancy plastic card!

i fell in love with amanda pleau and her totally sweet blog, misadventures in portland, about a year ago when she wrote a post about her spanx addiction.  it made me laugh so hard that i was extremely disruptive to others in my workplace. apparently, tax spreadsheets should not be quite so hilarious. also, i was wearing spanx at the time, so it really struck a chord with me.

point being, misadventures has had a place in my “best maine blogs” sidebar (and my heart) for a long time. a few months ago, she wrote this really amazing post about being a recipient of food stamps, and i knew i wanted her to write a companion piece for broke207, because i think there are a lot of young people out there who could benefit from the program, but either don’t know about it, or don’t think they qualify. shockingly, she accepted my request for an unpaid guest post (in between writing her own blog, working, and being a full time student), and here it is. please enjoy it for both its educational and entertainment value, and you should probably add her to your google reader and twitter feed, and head on over to her blog and devour the whole thing, leaving copious comments all the way.

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You know that feeling when you log into your Internet banking; your breath is caught in your chest, you start panicking? “Where the did all the money go? Oh my god, how am I going to pay my rent/phone/student loan/insurance? How exactly does one start turning tricks and how long does it take to get the money?” I’ve had that feeling intermittently throughout my twenties, from when I moved out at 21, to when I had a real job with the proper salary, and especially now that I’m a student again.

Two years ago, I wrote this article or my friend Mary. It was my first year back in school at the University of Southern Maine, and I was working twenty hours a week at a coffee shop. I felt great about my financial situation, hopeful for the future. I had goals! A budget! It’s laughable how much things have changed since then: I caused a car accident while driving without insurance, I’m looking at almost $30k in student loans after I graduate this year, and I lost my lucrative waitressing job for doing something really dumb. Once the shock of being fired wore off, that panicky feeling slowly crept up, and I fell into a bottomless pit of despair. “What am I going to doooooooo?”

I figured out my income/expense ratio. It wasn’t good. It only took a few days for me to decide to go to the Department of Health and Human Services and apply for food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Once upon a time, there were actual stamp-like bills, but now it’s like a credit card.  I’m sure social service workers are probably super annoyed by the difference between the actual name of the program and the common vernacular. My case worker was pretty short with me. He said I needed a letter from my former employer confirming my termination (that was an awkward email), signatures from my roommates saying they were not feeding my sorry, lazy ass, proof that I was a full-time student working at least 20 hours a week, and pay stubs from my jobs. My jobs at that time consisted of a monthly column in the Portland Phoenix (for which I earned one whole Jackson), and my work-study job at the student newspaper. Very shortly after submitting all of my paperwork, I was admitted! There was no phone call, no confirmation, just a shiny new EBT (Electric Benefit Transfer) card with my name on it.

If you’re wondering whether you qualify, here’s a sort of confusing worksheet from the folks at Pine Tree Legal to figure out income eligibility. As a non-disabled, non-elderly single person, the requirements were something like my gross income couldn’t be more than $1,110 a month. Pffft! Done!

Mostly, it’s been pretty awesome. I get $200 a month! There one irate woman was upset with me for posting a blog about it. She claimed that I have been “taking advantage of the system; that I shouldn’t brag about living in Portland’s most expensive neighborhood (Munjoy Hill) and buying fancy cheeses at Rosemont Market.” First of all, I filled out the paperwork and it turns out I’m actually poor. My rent is $410, a far cry from the most expensive. Second, there’s no prerequisite about where to shop or what to buy. If I wanted to go to 7-11 and get only beef jerky and Mountain Dew, I could. The funds I am given are usually more than enough, so I treat myself to expensive cheese once in a while. And by the way, if you didn’t have a car and had to carry all of your groceries home, you would probably also sacrifice price for convenience. And I’m not alone- a friend who works at Rosemont Market on Hill told me that a significant portion of their customers participate in the SNAP program.

Here is a list of frivolous things I have bought:
Sushi at Hannaford
sandwiches from Shaw’s
chewing gum
fountain sodas to sneak into the movies
Little Lad’s popcorn
sliced, peeled fresh mango
a whole blueberry pie
a whole cheesecake
hot coffee at Rosemont on Brighton Ave

Here is the only thing I was surprised to not be able to buy:
Herbal tea

For a more complete list, head on over to the US Department of Agriculture, where they explain why you can buy pumpkins for Halloween, seafood, energy drinks, seeds and plants, some gift baskets, some birthday cakes and why junk food counts as food, but not live chickens.

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16 responses

22 08 2011
Erica @ Just Call Me Cheap

I guess we all do what we feel we need to do to get by. My husband got laid off a couple of months after our daughter was born (we also had a two year old son) and we found ourselves with our income cut way down, even with unemployment.

We did take advantage of getting reimbursed for part of our COBRA payments because with two children we really needed to keep our health insurance and could not have afforded the premiums for too long without the help. We did qualify for food stamps but do to my extreme crazy couponing stockpile we did not sign up. We lived off of what we had and cut back on the extras. We also had a pretty decent emergency fund set aside that helped us to pay our other bills without having to beg for help from our families.

I guess my point is that if you really think you need the help then take it. If you are just taking it because you qualify but there would be another way around it (with some extra effort and sacrifice) then don’t. And in my own opinion, I do think that food stamps should really only be for those who have families- it is easier to support one’s self being poor than to support one’s self and children when being poor. Adults can (and should) pull their weight while children need to be taken care of.

22 08 2011
bessmarvin

i’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this one erica. when i first graduated from college, i lived in a tiny one room apartment that cost more than half of my monthly take-home pay. i didn’t have cable or internet or a cell phone. i lived as lean as humanly possible, and worked 40 hours a week at my FT job, and had a second job teaching SAT prep at night. i had no savings, because i had nothing left to save. i essentially lived off of lipton sides and bologna sandwiches for 2 years until i got a better paying job and moved in with the man who would one day become my ex husband. was i surviving? yes, but my nutritional needs were not being met, and i was very stressed out all the time trying to figure out how to make ends meet. the SNAP program would have provided me great relief on both fronts. i am not encouraging people to abuse the system, or to apply just because they can if they feel they are currently able to meet their nutritional needs on their current income. but i know that there are a lot of students/unemployed/marginally employed/and employed at minimum wage young people out there who could greatly benefit from this program. i know i could have. a big part of the reason i started this blog was to show my generation how to save money on food, because it was something i struggled with for a long time. i still think you can do a lot with couponing, but SNAP could help a lot of fine hardworking struggling folks fill in the gaps, and i don’t think they should be shamed for that. everyone deserves a chance at proper nutrition!

22 08 2011
Audrey

Excellent guest blog! This is something a friend of mine were talking about at length the other night. The benefits are there for those who qualify, and no one should be judged if and HOW they choose to participate in the programs that are there for people to nourish themselves with, awesome cheesecake or modest bulgar wheat aside.

Erica, I’m afraid I don’t agree with you about thinking that SNAP benefits should only be for those with families. Hunger affects everyone, and someone who has grown up to be responsible and be on time with their bills (rent, student loans, car payments, insurance, phone, etc.) are frequently looking at higher “expense to income” ratios. Having access to good nutrition (while your body is still growing!) not only guarantees the health and well-being of *future* mothers and fathers, it establishes good eating practices that will carry them through if/when the participants are able to go off the program. I am, however, glad that the family size affects benefits positively, as I do believe families should receive more benefits per each little mouth to feed.

Social programs exist for a reason – and in proportion to the cost of military spending and bailing out enormous corporations, it really is a drop in the bucket.

22 08 2011
bessmarvin

amanda is the balls. and i’m really proud of her for being so willing to be open about her experience with the foods stamps program, because there is a lot of stigma around it, especially for young single people. hunger does affect everyone. well put miss audrey.

22 08 2011
Blackgirlinmaine

I work in social services, I am actually the director of a small non-profit in southern Maine and in the past our agency that does not provide direct services has seen a steep increase in people asking for assistance. It’s at the point that when I refer people to other agencies they have already called and I know from colleagues that other agencies are tapped out.

Frankly there are not enough jobs available and whereas 5-10 years ago a single person could hobble a living together with 2-3 jobs that option in most cases is not available. That said SNAP benefits are available to all who qualify and eating should not only been seen as a right or privilege to those with kids.

Healthy nutrition lays a good foundation and frankly I would rather see people maintain their health and wellness now while they are younger than crazy medical conditions brought on because they lived off top ramen.

Erica, you are one of the lucky ones. Many people work at jobs where they are unable to grow a nest egg and when they lose their job, they are screwed. In this economy I think we all need to be mindful that unless we are in the top tier of earners any of our fortunes can turn on a dime.

22 08 2011
bessmarvin

thank you! very very well put. back in early 2000, i was just scraping by on 2 jobs with no savings. i can’t even imagine trying to get by in today’s job market, where several hundred people apply for a cashier job at reny’s. it’s so tough out there, and everyone deserves the privilege of health/nutrition. (don’t even get me started on nationalized health care…)

23 08 2011
chris

I’m sorry, but the money for SNAP comes from people who pay taxes. With the economy in the crapper, we have been having a hard time these past few years being self-employed general contractors. I would NEVER buy sushi, sandwiches, pre-cut fruit, cheesecake or pies because they are expensive convenience foods and we can’t afford them. I need to spend the money on my astronomical monthly health insurance premium.

I have a difficult time seeing my husband drag himself home from work every day with his bad back and arthritis at 40 knowing the ridiculous amount of federal taxes we pay are going towards stuff I can’t afford myself.

23 08 2011
Erica @ Just Call Me Cheap

I totally agree!
My dad has been a self employed carpenter his whole adult life (since he was 16) and has never once gotten food stamps. Whenever he didn’t have work he would hustle and find something (even calling every carpenter in the phone book) so that his family wouldn’t starve. Did he enjoy his life having to bust his butt to make ends meet? Probably not but he does have his pride in knowing that he didn’t need a hand out. He also instilled his hardworking values in myself and my little brothers.
If you need help it take it but I think when it comes down to it, many people don’t want to work as hard as previous generations did and take the easier way out…

24 08 2011
audrey

I also have to mention that asking for help is not the ‘easy’ way. About two years ago I was between jobs and stuck in a long interview process for the job I have now (which didn’t pay anything, obviously!)

It was the beginning of winter, we had to heat our home, and we had to eat. Because I am, like your father, almost unwilling to ask for help (I consider it something I need to work on, in all aspects of my life) I ended up going to bed hungry more than a few times. Thank goodness my boyfriend was there with food and a wallet to help when he could! But even though I lived down the street from the Catholic Church (free lunches) and from DHHS (benefits) I could *not* bring myself to go ask for help. It was too hard/embarrassing/unknown. Like Allie, in retrospect, I would have asked for help through the tough times (about 3 months, then I got the job!) until I could afford to go off.

24 08 2011
audrey

Again – disagree. The SNAP benefits are calculated based on income and foods that qualify for those benefits do so because all those people who ‘sit around’ up there in Augusta and down there in Washington have made some thoughtful decisions about why those foods qualify.

I’m not on benefits, I make about $200 per month more than the minimum (wow, I’m rich!…not.) and when I go to Hannaford to buy my lunch at work sometimes I purchase soup/salad, sometimes I purchase a package of couscous and veggies (because I’m lucky enough to have a kitchen at work) and sometimes I buy sushi. However – that’s all I eat for the meal and if $5.49 for lunch is exorbitant then I’m not sure what decade you’ve been buying your food in, but I think that’s pretty good.

Just because people are receiving benefits doesn’t mean they are sitting in their one-bedroom palaces spending the day doing really fun stuff instead of pre-cooking their meals and making sandwiches ahead of time. Generally, those who are scraping by are those who work in kitchens, as cashiers, and all kinds of strenuous, entry-level positions that don’t allow for a lot of energy after work for meal planning. And, just because they’re receiving benefits doesn’t mean they don’t know how to budget: if I get $50 a week for food once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s not really anyone’s business what anyone else puts in to their bodies — although cheesecake certainly isn’t as healthy as an apple it still has caloric value and will keep someone from being hungry at the end of the day.

As for those who do qualify for assistance and don’t take it – that’s their choice. There is pride in self-sufficiency, however difficult. But I don’t think anyone, ever, should be made to feel guilty if and how they are asking for help when they qualify for it, and especially not how they choose to use it as long as they are following the laws and regulations surrounding it that were, y’know, predetermined by that good ol’ democracy thing.

23 08 2011
Blackgirlinmaine

Why should people living on the financial edge be relegated to eating gruel? In many instances the new people receiving SNAP benefits are employed, they just don’t earn a great deal of money. I know a carpenter right now a dear associate who at almost 60 had to apply for SNAP and medicaid for his family because his work has dried up and he has been driving all over northern New England seeking work.

I need work on my house but can’t afford any clearly I am not the only one. It seems like replies like these are only designed to shame people and often come from people who love to talk about the good ole days. Those days are gone and the new reality is there is not enough work for everyone and yes some people are lazy but many are not.

Rather than focusing on what we don’t have individually why not look at the system that has set us up to become adversaries while the rich guys are laughing at us all while they get richer and we all get poorer.

24 08 2011
audrey

Truly! Let’s bring home some of these wars to free up that pesky budget. Halliburton might be pissy about it, but it would definitely free up a few trillion dollars to feed our hungry (sushi for everyone!!) and reinvest in domestic growth/green technologies.

26 08 2011
Mrs.Litz

When I used to work at a pizza place, one of the girls got food stamps for her 3 kids and her boyfriend. No problem there. Kids need to eat, parents need to eat. The issue however was every single night after her shift, she’d go to the gas station next door and get cigarrettes and a huge pack of beer, but she didn’t have enough money to buy her kids food or clothing. THAT is horrible in my opinion. You can buy alot of food for the cost of smokes and beer.

On a different view, my current boss at a much nicer job, lost his and his wife’s jobs back in the 80’s, a huge plant shut down and there weren’t any jobs to be had anywhere in town, they did everything they could but ended up finally going to apply for food stamps. They were told that they didn’t have enough debt to get them. They were paying all their monthly bills, but had no money left over for food. It’s really no wonder people go out and buy expensive cars to put themselves into debt to get on food stamps. If that was the only way I could feed my child, I’d have a Lexus in my driveway.

30 08 2011
audrey

Regarding the cigarettes and beer coworker – of course. And although you can speak theoretically about her choices (and/or addictions) and about what ‘you would do’ there’s no actual law against receiving benefits you qualify for and doing something else irresponsible with the money you do earn. But you can’t make the exception the rule, and for every person out there who is addicted to smoking and/or drinking and being ‘horrible’ there have got to be 10 others who are scrimping and saving every last penny to better their situation.

I wasn’t aware that people went out and bought cars so that they qualify for food stamps – interesting.

24 10 2011
Ellie

I realize that I’m commenting on a rather old post here, but I wanted to put in my 2 cents. I receive foods stamps. Right now, I get about $50 a month which doesn’t sound like a lot but it helps a great deal.

When I first applied for food stamps, I was 18. I had moved away from my father as soon as it was legal, moved into a spare room that some of my adult friends had, and got a part time job at Subway to pay the rent, all while still a senior in high school. When I was eating mostly the sandwiches I got free from my shifts at work, school lunches and table scraps, my friends took me down to DHS to apply for food stamps.

I was completely flabbergasted to discover that I qualified for nearly $200 a month in food stamps! $200 worth of food that I was expressly forbidden to share with others. The first month of shopping, I was amazed. I had never eaten so well in my life but I had spent barely over half of my food stamps.

So I began spending more on food. I had steak and lamb frequently. I would buy expensive imported fruits like mangoes, just because. I shopped at Whole Foods more than once a month. I bought $3 candybars before work. Worst of all I would go overboard on produce and let a lot of it go bad, because I knew I could just buy more. However, what the food stamps had done was exactly the opposite of what they should have done: teach me how to properly budget food costs.

Now I will be the last one to say that people on food stamps should only be able to eat gruel and government cheese. However, I think we ought to really look at how much we are giving people. Food stamps should give you enough to get by and even splurge a little if you budget them properly, but not so much that you can live on lobster and caviar.

27 10 2011
bessmarvin

thanks for weighing in! you provide a really fascinating angle on this whole food stamps debate. i don’t know enough about it, but it does seem like certain folks may be getting more than they need… although as a stingy grocery shopper, this may just be my own skewed view. i do think that everyone should be able to afford healthy/wholesome food (quinoa and kale should not be privileges afforded only to the rich)- and perhaps even an occasional treat. it’s so hard to figure out where to draw the line. i almost think that people who receive food stamps should also have to take a class about nutrition and budgeting… and that perhaps the parameters for what can be purchased with food stamps should be reevaluated. although i doubt that the majority of food stamp users are feasting on lobster and caviar. that would probably be too nutritious!

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