Recently at an outdoor hip-hop showcase in downtown Brooklyn, the host tried to move the crowd with a little food stamps humor. “I know you want to, but don’t even try to use your EBT card at the barbecue stand,” the 20-something black woman crowed. “Y’all know you can’t get that hot food!”
Based on the eye-rolling and teeth-sucking I observed, the audience wasn’t amused. Told at a gentrified-Brooklyn bazaar bursting with artisanal sorbet, fancy grilled cheese sandwiches and organic dog treats, her little joke about how “we” use EBT benefits was in poor taste. She may have meant to critique prepared-food policing in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but in mixed class company, the comment fit neatly within the conservative interpretation of personal responsibility—the one that implies that poor people are out to exploit food stamps for short-term pleasure.
I have a wild suggestion for comedians, commenters, moralists and opinion-shapers of color, particularly women: At least until the 2012 Farm Bill passes, let’s create a moratorium on unfunny, uninformed, poor-shaming EBT talk.
Hear me out on what may seem like a wonky point: The Farm Bill, which expires every five years, is critical. It covers agriculture, conservation and forestry policy, international food aid—and SNAP, the program formerly known as “food stamps.”
The Senate version of this year’s Farm Bill cuts about $4.5 billion from SNAP. In real life, this means 500,000 households would lose $90 a month in benefits, according to the Food and Research Action Center. Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee’s version, passed early this month, includes a staggering $16.5 billion in SNAP cuts. Per Feeding America, this would result in 3 million people losing all of their benefits, 300,000 children going without school lunch, and 500,000 households losing $90 in monthly grocery money.
I haven’t seen a race breakdown of these potential losses, but I can tell you that of SNAP households in 2010, 36 percent were white, 22 percent were black,10 percent were Latino, 2 percent were Asian, 3 percent were Native American (19 percent didn’t report their race). Most adult recipients were women and a hefty share were single moms.*
I don’t want to beat you over the head with stats, but it’s really important to note how many folks are using SNAP. About one in seven U.S. residents received this help in 2011, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The year before, three out of four households on SNAP included a child, elderly or disabled person. For the most part, SNAP participants were below the poverty line and their food budgets were very small. Here’s more from the CBO:
Most people who received SNAP benefits lived in households with very low income, about $8,800 per year on average in that year. The average monthly SNAP benefit per household was $287, or $4.30 per person per day. On average, SNAP benefits boosted gross monthly income by 39 percent for all participating households and by 45 percent for households with children.
“This is harmful for a culture and a country, when you have one in seven people thinking it’s OK for someone else to feed them. We do need to reform that, and frankly we need to scale it back.”
I disagree with this framing, particularly given the free money that both versions throw at industrial farmers.
So does LaTisha B., a 25-year-old, black mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. LaTisha, who asked me not to use her full name, is going to college full-time for nuclear medicine technology. She’s actually a trained phlebotomist, but can’t find work in her field in Columbia, S.C., where she lives. So for now, to feed her kids and herself, she receives $514 a month in SNAP benefits.
“I would love to be a part-time student and work a full-time job, but if I do work they will cut my benefits,” she says. “In my area, the jobs I have access to are customer-service and warehouse jobs. I’ve worked those kinds of jobs; they paid between $9.50 and $11.50. With two young kids, child care alone would be too expensive.”
LaTisha is in a committed relationship with her children’s father, who makes $13.25 an hour as a forklift operator at an non-union warehouse. Before I ask her about marriage, she lays out a cost-benefit analysis of her relationship status.
“My kids have a father who wants to do the right thing, but he’s just not making enough for us to go without our benefits, and overtime just isn’t available,” she says before pointing out that they both lack health insurance. “I feel like we’d be penalized for having a good relationship.”
To feed her family nutritious food, LaTisha buys her groceries at Walmart and a member’s only discount club. Her staples include chicken, ground beef, “starches,” and a wide range of fruits, from apples to mangos, pineapples to honeydew. She hasn’t tried her local Fresh Market, a store that prides itself on “conveying the atmosphere of an old world European market,” because she doesn’t know if they accept EBT. (According to my cold call, they don’t.) If her local farmer’s market began taking her card, she says she would travel 20 miles away to shop there. “Just like the next person, I want to get my kids intro to different things and broaden their horizons.”
Finally, I asked LaTisha what she would like to tell the legislators responsible for the Farm Bill—and people in general—about her SNAP benefits, work ethic, food choices and her life. Here’s what she said. “My biggest issue is the stereotype of people who receive benefits. People who don’t know assume that you have a certain lifestyle, that you’re selling food stamps for a profit. But I’m in a household that needs the benefit. I became a full-time student because of this bad economy and now I need the help,” she says. “I’m not taking it just because I can get it.”
*See pages xvi, 51 and 57.
Check out Latoya Peterson’s still-relevant May 2011 post about food stamps and armchair policy-making.
Also check out Seth Freed Wessler’s 2010 Colorlines investigation into how and why desperate moms would sell their food stamps.