Fun, if you’re not poor, and damned statistics

Friday night’s baseball adventure brought up a number of questions for our family. Although I had planned carefully in advance, our JFSC got sticky as we tried to stay on a food budget while at the ball game. Obviously, we have options, while someone living on food stamps might not. The major difference is that the JFSC is a choice for us, not a long-term situation.
So here are some questions to consider:

  • What happens to a poor family when one member refuses to play by the rules — abide by the budget, buy only healthy food, or eat only his share?
  • Is it right or wrong for a poor family or person to accept a gift of tickets to an event, or some such, that s/he couldn’t afford, if s/he can then attend but not afford the other goodies (the cost of high-ticket beverages, appropriate clothing, tips for the waiter, etc.)? Does this outing then become more of a burden? An exception to the budget? A treat?
  • We have invited some friends and family to a Father’s Day barbecue and intend to offer hospitality on that day. That means, to stick to the JFSC, I will have to make sure to budget sufficiently to afford this party. Should poor people do the same: plan ahead and save, or not hold family gatherings because they “cost too much” and the food stamps might run out buying party food?
  • What about holidays and birthdays, summer potlucks and BBQs: should those be avoided if one “can’t afford it”?
  • Is it cheating if we, middle-class, college educated, but living on a budget, choose to step off the carnival ride of the JFSC for a day here and there in order to meet our social obligations?
  • Should we, as an example for those less fortunate, try to set an example to show those people how it can be done properly on a budget, but with style? Would it make a difference if I served served it in a teacup?
  • Is it cheating to eat anything other than what your food stamps can buy if you are subsisting mostly on food stamps?
Ahhhhh. Many questions. Many answers. Which of them are the right answers? I don’t think I know. I spent some time looking at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Web site and found scads of information about the food stamp program — actually called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The word “supplemental” is important because it notes that the program assists the food budget; it isn’t meant to be the entire food budget. However, for many poor families, the SNAP money is indeed the entire resource for food.
Food stamps are no longer like Monopoly money, in different colors or denominations, but rather an electronic debit card like your ATM card. Funds are loaded onto a family’s account/card each month. Families no longer need to go stand in line at an office — a burden if you are disabled, elderly, or have small children, and impossible if you have a job. The use of the card has helped reduce the public shame of using food stamps.
(Should poor people be publicly shamed? That is an opinion I’ve heard while on this journey — that the stigma and shame should still be attached. As for me, I don’t agree. Compassion for others is how I prefer to see and act in the world, and having been hungry and ashamed of it, I don’t wish the feeling on anyone. If you still agree with this sort of public shaming, perhaps you yourself have not been hungry before. Comment below, please!)

Who gets SNAP benefits, anyway?
  • 51 percent of all participants are children (17 or younger), and 65 percent of them live in single-parent households.
  • 55 percent of food stamp households include children.
  • 9 percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).
  • 79 percent of all benefits go to households with children, 14 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 7 percent go to households with elderly persons.
  • 36 percent of households with children were headed by a single parent, the overwhelming majority of whom were women.
  • The average household size is 2.3 persons.
  • The average gross monthly income per food stamp household is $640.
  • 41 percent of participants are white; 36 percent are African-American, non-Hispanic; 18 percent are Hispanic; 3 percent are Asian, 2 percent are Native American, and 1 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity. (USDA stats)

Eligibility for food stamps is outlined here if you want to know how one gets into this exclusive club. Your income has to be pretty low, and eligibility depends on who is in the household, age and able-bodiedness, and so on. No one is denied because of race, age, religion, ethnicity, geography or political beliefs. If you are an able-bodied adult who is out of work, there is a limit to how long you can receive benefits, and you have to be actively looking for work and documenting that search.

There are welfare cheats, of course. Those are probably the one common denominator that I’ve been asked about — not the children, elderly and disabled who are hungry, but the cheaters — the able-bodied, the slackers and shiftless unemployed druggies who don’t even try to work for a living, etc. Yes, welfare cheating exists at all levels. I find that, for some reason, the visible poor evoke a visceral response when I post about hunger — in a way that millions of gallons of gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico does not. You don’t think BP Oil is receiving welfare? Oh, they are. They are. Compare to:

“In 2008, SNAP served 28.4 million people a month at an annual cost of $34.6 billion. In February 2009, SNAP served 32.6 million people, an all-time record. SNAP participation fluctuates with the economy and with the pattern of poverty in America. As the number of persons in poverty rose, SNAP participation grows. When poverty falls, so does reliance on SNAP.” (USDA)

However, if you feel righteously indignant that someone is abusing the SNAP system, by all means, visit this Web site and call the Abuse Hotline. Don’t waste your breath complaining about it if you aren’t going to pull the trigger yourself:

I will stop for now, and do ask that you post your thoughts in re statistics, etc. if you have any to share. As for Saturday’s menu, it turned inexplicably toasty and windy, so we are not cooking today.
Breakfast: Cereal and milk, coffee

Snack: Nectarine ($1!) – the last one 🙁

Lunch: Leftover half of Subway veggie sandwich, water, leftover snacks from baseball game
Snack: Iced coffee (leftover from breakfast)
Dinner: Hot dogs on whole wheat buns (repeat of Tuesday’s dinner, since we have to eat the buns before they get stale, and we still have several pkgs of hot dogs in the freezer from week 1).

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3 Replies to “Fun, if you’re not poor, and damned statistics”

  1. Julia, you ask such great questions I do not know where to start.

    What I DO know is that the Bible (and Jesus) never say that we should shame or condemn those to whom we offer food, friendship, healing, help, prayers, or anything else. If we are a “Christian” nation (as some would have us believe) then we are hypocrites.

    As a Christian myself, I believe it is my job to be generous and help others (singly and as a part of the community of faith), and do so freely and without expecting anything in return.

    I believe we should help people through government programs in the same way. Condemnation is not helpful at any time, and it certainly is not a valid component of Christian charity.

    If it is so hard to do “normal” things like celebrate birthdays or holidays on a FS budget, then the allotment is too small.

    Blowing FS food budgets willfully (like Mr. Husband did at Pac Bell Park) is problematic. I’m sure that it’s enough of a problem when unintentional mistakes
    mess up a tight budget (I’ve done that), but don’t know what to say about willful “sabotage” of a limited-budget “contract.”

    I am inclined to go easy on you, Julia, since you are
    voluntarily taking this challenge and publicizing it so well, but not sure about your spouse. I am disappointed at his lack of commitment and unwillingness to “play by the rules,” even if your commitment to the FS challenge is voluntary.
    (And now I’ll stop meddling in your marriage.)

    Thanks again for documenting your very real struggles with this.

  2. Dear Julia,

    Thank you for doing the JFSC, and writing so insightfully and provocatively about it. It’s given me a lot to think about. Growing up, my family didn’t have much money (new immigrants) but there was, thankfully, always enough for food. Though I remember years when I always worried when my parents had family (newer immigrants) and friends over for dinner.

    I too wanted to take on the JFSC, but I knew we couldn’t because of our social obligations this month. Isn’t that awful? It wasn’t convenient for me to be poor this month. But when is it ever “convenient” to be poor? Never! It isn’t a choice and therefor shouldn’t be shamed.
    I’m very impressed at how you are making this work, and I’m unsurprised by how much effort is required to make all the meals work. I am lucky to have such a wonderful life, but still must be very careful with our food budget; though I do have the luxury of hosting dinner parties, etc. and also to slip up every once in awhile with no repercussion for buying a food item “just because”.

    Hats off to you, Julia. Thank you for making us think- and your tips have been great too.

  3. Just to clarify, it wasn’t deliberat sabotage. It was just one of those situations that come up in a marriage where you decide which hill to die on — my husband loves baseball and he would have kept the budget if I’d really pressed it — but would have been unhappy. So the “fault,” asuch as it is, is both of ours, and indeed the fact that this is just an experiement. No extra money? We probably wouldn’t have gone at all. I was trying to make it work within the JFSC but he really wanted to enjoy his baseball — and I wasn’t willing tosacrifice the harmony for a theoretical exercise. Reality would have played out differently. Make sense? If you look at the big picture, he’s doing it my way the other 29 days of the challenge. This day, I did it mostly my way and he did his part his way. No hard feelings here — but the lessons are noted for the final tally.

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