According to a Feb. 12 article by Aubrey Allison on NPR’s website, a recent White House proposal to alter SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), aka food stamps, would drastically re-make the program. The article states:
“Under the proposal … low-income Americans who receive at least $90 a month — just over 80 percent of all SNAP recipients — would get about half of their benefits in the form of a ‘USDA Foods package.’ The package was described in the budget as consisting of ‘shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.’ The boxes would not include fresh fruits or vegetables.”
To be sure, the USDA Foods package in the proposal amounts to what would now be called an emergency food box, something that most local food banks the country over, including the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (CAFB), already provide to needy residents. At least from the CAFB, emergency food boxes are typically fairly large and filled with as much food as CAFB staff and volunteers can possibly pack in. Plus, recipients are entitled to “shop” for fresh produce and other perishables when they go to the food bank to obtain the emergency food box.
The problem is that CAFB limits individuals to one of these emergency food boxes-cum-shopping trips to once a quarter. Four times a year. It’s a necessary restriction in the name of fairness. There are a lot of hungry people in Chattanooga—I daresay way, way more hungry people than what your average Chattanoogan assumes—and limitations are a necessary evil. Food banks all over the country face the same dilemma.
While there is a lot in CAFB’s food boxes, it’s not nearly enough to cover the nutritional needs of even the most frugal food consumer for three months. Maybe, and this is still a huge stretch, for one month. The rest of the individual’s needs must be covered by his/her regular income (i.e. wages from employment or one or more of a variety of disability incomes or retirement benefits), taking regular meals at soup kitchens, and/or existing SNAP benefits.
As it stands now, individuals who receive the maximum SNAP benefits amount receive approximately $190/month. It should be noted, and noted well, that under the current system, if an individual has a regular income, no matter what it is, the SNAP benefits amount s/he can receive is typically drastically reduced. There are disabled individuals who can barely leave the house, let alone work, who draw federal Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI—a form of disability income) in the amount of approximately $700/month. Their monthly SNAP benefit? $15.
On $700/month, paying the bills, including rent, and providing oneself with other necessary accouterment not covered by SNAP benefits (i.e. soap, toilet paper, et al) leaves mostly nothing left with which to buy food. That $15—pre-new White House proposal, remember—amounts to not much more than a mean joke. Now run the math on the White House’s proposal. The joke becomes one that only the cruelest among us could laugh at.
The proposal is also incongruous to the White House’s own core values and greater GOP core values in general. Follow me for another second here: The GOP’s response to Americans struggling with hunger, not to mention Americans in poverty in general, has historically landed not very far from the “Poor folks should get off their asses and find jobs,” philosophy. USDA Food packages would be delivered, preventing recipients from leaving their homes to shop for half their groceries. It’s difficult to understand how further confining food stamp recipients and slicing in half their ability to choose their own food is supposed to encourage them to leave the house, find high paying jobs, and provide for themselves entirely.
And consider this: The proposed USDA Food packages would be delivered to recipients and would be filled with food items recipients didn’t choose. What’s in there sounds sort of nutritious but that’s beside the point. The White House’s faulty assumption is that Americans who receive food benefits, left to their own devices, will eat nothing but Fun Dip for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The White House, to clarify, thinks recipients are fundamentally unable to decide for themselves what’s good and what’s not.
None of this is to say there aren’t problems with how things are done now. SNAP benefits are quintessential American bureaucracy. Perhaps you, dear reader, have gone through the process to obtain SNAP benefits yourself. If so, you know the thick red tape. No right-thinking American would argue the American food stamp program should remain exactly as is. But the White House’s proposal is a slap-dash, clumsily cobbled “plan” that will further marginalize hungry and poverty-stricken Americans. Simply, it’s one more demonstration of the White House’s breathtaking ignorance of American big picture poverty. And I’d describe the White House with one of its own favorite words. “Sad.”
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.