What Poverty Looks Like and Who Uses Food Stamps

February 17, 2018 Kristance Harlow
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

It is long past time to stop making judgments about what poverty looks like. Impoverished people do not fit into a neat stereotype of what acceptable poverty is or isn’t. Many poor folks own iPhones and computers, but some don’t. Some people in poverty have a nice home, others do not. When I became homeless after a fire burned down my uncle’s home, people in my community generously gave me money and no one told me what I had to spend it on. I was lucky, I didn’t have to apply for government assistance but that is only because I was privileged enough to have family, friends, and a community who were able to bear the weight of my need.

The first big purchase I made with that money was to buy an iPhone. It was of critical importance for me to have that piece of technology. Without access to the internet, everything is harder to do. It is harder to apply for jobs, to find public transportation schedules, to stay connected to family and friends, or to even find coupons to use at the store. I feel zero shame for buying that phone, it was probably the smartest purchase I ever made.

I remember a few years ago when the video about three students from Offenburg Germany helping a homeless man went viral. Social media exploded with people either touched or enraged by the video. There was a particularly nasty comment in my feed I will never forget, and I even saved the quote because it made me so enraged. With sarcastic virulence the commented wrote, “Sick of seeing the homeless people sharing food they were just given while regular everyday folks aren’t as giving of their own food videos…everyone says oh tugs on my heart strings or made me so emotional. I say it’s always easier to give away something you didn’t work for…something you didn’t earn.” While it was later revealed that the homeless man was an actor, the principal remains that poverty and homelessness are shockingly misunderstood.

Working hard and success are not synonyms for each other and neither are they mutually exclusive. I am not a hard worker compared to some folks but compared to other people I work extremely hard. I have a lot of privilege, and I have a lot of struggles. They are not mutually exclusive truths. We get it, you worked hard, but you also had certain privileges that made that experience easier (and certainly different) than others who may not have your level of success.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg on this issue. It’s a ridiculous idea that people in poverty, who already struggle, must struggle more and live up to some impossible moral/deserving standard. It is expected that live purely by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by filling each level of the pyramid before being deserving of filling the next one. People are expected to fill these needs alone without help from others. It’s all steeped in this weird fucked up mythology about individual American dreams. Humanity doesn’t work like that, humans simply do not live solitary lives and that myth is killing people.

The new proposal for sending SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) participants boxes of government approved food is not only ridiculous and impractical, but it’s offensive and cruel. It’s an extremely invasive proposal by a political party that has long advocated for less government involvement and more personal liberty. This blatant attack on the poor is being camouflaged (albeit poorly) as a cost-saving measure to stop people abusing the system.

It echoes the misdirected outrage when local governments try to raise the minimum wage or legislate paid leave. Paid sick days are actually excellent for a company’s bottom line by improving productivity and employee morale. It reduces turnover and is a boon for taxpayers. The economy is not a zero-sum game; raising minimum wage doesn’t reduce profit by raising prices (inflation on inflation), instead it increases consumer spending and boosts the economy.

Tax dollars do not go wasted to support welfare programs. Truly, very little is spent on the poor. As stated by the Economic Policy Institute, “The United States stands out as the country with the highest poverty rate and one of the lowest levels of social expenditure.”

When the economy improves, and unemployment rates decrease, fewer people sign up for food stamps.

There is so much animosity towards impoverished people. Whether they are homeless or getting by with help from the government. What is it about poverty that people are so woefully ignorant about? In the American psyche, wealth is inexplicably linked with righteousness; one cannot be wealthy without being a smart and capable person and one cannot be in poverty without having some kind of defect of character or moral shortcoming. The way society is structured (and in particular an oligarchic one like the USA), no one earns where they are born.

It is a myth that there are hordes of people abusing food stamps. Kids, seniors, disabled people make up two-thirds of the people who rely on the SNAP program (commonly known as food stamps). The average monthly benefit per person is $133.85, which is less than $1.50 per meal per person. And nearly half of all people who are food insecure are not even eligible for SNAP. It’s a benefit that is used as intended. When the economy improves, and unemployment rates decrease, the number of people on food stamps reduces.

When the economy improves, and unemployment rates decrease, fewer people sign up for food stamps.

If you want to find out where the most money is wasted and you’re digging into the welfare myth, you’re looking in the wrong place. Food benefits actually improve the economy, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, “An increase of $1 billion in SNAP expenditures is estimated to increase economic activity (GDP) by $1.79 billion. In other words, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity.”

What these food boxes would do is increase rates of child malnutrition, food insecurity, and starvation. The process of handing out or mailing these boxes would require a significant investment and it’s hard to imagine it actually saving any money when taking into account paying people to choose the food, the packaging, the mailing costs, the delivery costs, etc. The contents of these boxes will not improve nutrition. Many folks in poverty do not have access to a kitchen and cannot properly store or prepare food. Eating nutritiously is a struggle when you don’t have resources. Combine that with the rising rates of food allergies and it’s likely much of the food would go to waste.

One child in every 30 children is homeless in America. In 2013, the conservative estimate was that 23 percent of homeless people (both in and out of shelters) were minors under 18 years old and of the homeless in shelters 30 percent were in that age group. The idea of sending boxes to people on food stamps would mean these children won’t receive the most basic necessities for survival. As a society, we must protect the most vulnerable among us.













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