As a long-time user of the internet, I know better than to read the comments section of news websites. While these sections can sometimes provide interesting insight, they also bring out some pretty insensitive people who say things they probably wouldn’t if the internet weren’t anonymous. I’m well-armed with this knowledge, and so I have no idea what possessed me to glance at the comments below a recent news story about a woman with a toddler and a newborn baby who’d been sleeping in a Metro station after being evicted from their home.
This family’s predicament is a sign that something in our community is deeply amiss; but the outcome is testament that the residents of this region are capable of incredible things. Someone stepped forward to put the family up in a hotel room and helped the mother begin to navigate the complicated process of applying for benefits like food stamps. To most people, that would be the start of a happy ending. Not for people like “Neil64,” who weighed in in the comments section with this gem: “I have witnessed food stamp recipients having parties with their stamps while eating out every night.”
That sound you just heard was a needle scratching a vinyl record and me banging my head against my desk. As much as I want to throttle sit Neil64 down for a good talking-to, he brings up a good point (bear with me). This week, some of the staff at The Women’s Foundation, along with many others across the community, are taking part in the Food Stamp Challenge. Organized by DC Hunger Solutions (a Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner), the exercise challenges participants to live on $30 worth of food for an entire week. $30 per week per person is the average food stamp benefit in DC.
Since the challenge began, I’ve become aware of just how many myths are out there about food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). We’ll get into how ridiculous the idea of a food stamp party is in a moment. But first, let’s talk about five food stamp myths.
- Benefit recipients cheat the system by selling their food stamps.
Instances of SNAP fraud have dropped over the last two decades from four cents on the dollar to one cent on the dollar. In 2010, there were 195 convictions for SNAP fraud. That’s a tiny number compared to the more than 46 million Americans who receive food stamp benefits.
- “I was in the checkout line at the grocery store and I saw someone using food stamps to buy a whole bunch of alcohol and cigarettes.”
I’ve heard this one so many times I can’t help but wonder how these busybodies manage to get their own groceries on the conveyer belt, since they seem to be monitoring those ahead of them so closely. SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes and tobacco.
- People use food stamps to buy junk food. Also, lobsters.
The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 designates any food or food product for home consumption as eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. That includes food that the people behind you in line (the ones itemizing your purchases and making note of your method of payment) might not approve of. A report from the federal government also states that there’s no evidence that food stamp recipients are more likely to choose “unhealthy” foods than people who don’t use the program.
- SNAP costs too much and is taking money away from important federal programs.
According to Dr. Susan Blumenthal, in 2011 SNAP cost the federal government $78 billion. That’s just 2.11 percent of the government’s $3.7 trillion budget. She also points out that for every dollar spent on SNAP, $1.84 in economic activity was generated.
- People on food stamps are lazy/hipsters/entitled students/welfare schemers.
People from all walks of life rely on food stamp benefits to keep from going hungry. Nearly half of the beneficiaries are children and eight percent are senior citizens, reports the USDA. More than 40 percent of food stamp recipients live in households where a family member is employed.
This brings us back to Neil64, what he’s “witnessed,” and what we’re learning from the Food Stamp Challenge. It’s really hard to eat on just $4.30 a day. It’s not a party, and there are very few options for “eating out” once during the week, much less every night. Plus, in this region, restaurants cannot accept food stamps. By participating in efforts like the Food Stamp Challenge and educating ourselves with real facts, it’s possible to recognize the myths and participate in an honest discourse about the benefits of these programs and how they can be improved.
In a time of incredible economic uncertainty, food stamps help many families stay afloat. If they can help keep a woman, a toddler and an infant in a safe, warm home, then it’s time for us, as a community, to embrace and support the difference they can make.
Mariah is the director of communications and marketing at the Foundation.