Last week, TU’s Women’s and Gender Studies department hosted the SNAP Challenge. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known by its former name Food Stamps, gives low-income, unemployed and homeless Americans a meager amount of money to buy food with. The keyword in that last sentence is meager, as the average amount that SNAP recipients got in June 2016 was $124.97, or $4.16/day.
TU’s SNAP Challenge allowed participants to spend $4.40/day, or $30.80 for the full week, on groceries to live on. Other stipulations for the challenge included not accepting food from others and not using previously owned groceries.
Once I decided to participate in the challenge, I went to Reasor’s and immediately realized I would have issues affording my usual groceries. I was able to afford the staples of my weekly diet (cereal and milk, granola bars and pasta), and a surprising number of items were on sale, other items like meat, spices and cheese were easily out of my fiscal reach.
The first few days, my diet was surprisingly unaffected. Cereal or a bagel and eggs before I leave in the morning, two granola bars for lunchtime and late afternoon, and pasta for dinner when I get back home. Considering I’m a fairly small person who doesn’t require many calories, I was able to get along fairly well at the start.
By the fifth day of the challenge, all I had left to eat was breakfast food, rice and carrots. My other vegetables and fruits had started to go bad by this point, as I bought all the food on the first day and tried to ration it throughout the week.
Part of the problem I encountered may have been that I didn’t have a great idea of everything I would need. Another part, though, is that it was difficult to come up with something resembling a well-rounded diet with the budget.
Of course, my one week experience can’t even begin to compare to actually living in poverty. I was frequently turning down (and, near the end, once accepting) food provided from events and work, which doesn’t happen nearly as frequently outside of college campuses. I drank an almost absurd amount of water during the challenge in an attempt to keep myself from feeling hungry, and clean water isn’t always available in low-income neighborhoods. Speaking of water, I wasn’t worrying about paying other bills, like water, electricity and rent in addition to having enough food.
I was also only feeding myself, which is important because the amount of benefits per person drops with every person added to a household. For the 2015 fiscal year, the average benefit per person per day was $4.73 for a household of 1, $4.21 for households of 2 and 3, $3.87 for a household of 4, and the trend continues.
One could argue that, with the larger overall amount of money, the family has more power to buy in bulk, but (at least in Oklahoma) all monthly benefits are given out at the same time, so any SNAP recipient could effectively buy in bulk; people in larger households just have less money per person to work with.
For the 43.4 million Americans (614,624 Oklahomans) currently receiving SNAP benefits, this is of course better than nothing, but is most likely not enough for them. Just over 30% of all SNAP households have someone working in addition to receiving benefits, so they may be able to use a small part of that income for food, but they will also receive less benefits as their income increases. Thankfully, scaling down benefits with income isn’t very severe in SNAP, relieving the severity of the “welfare trap” some find themselves in when taking a raise or promotion but losing benefits doesn’t result in a net benefit.
For the 70% of SNAP households without someone working, SNAP benefits may be the only money they can consistently rely on for to pay for groceries, and it’s often hardly enough. Current spending on SNAP is approximately .4% of the US federal budget, and is predicted to lower as the economy continues to recover from the 2008 recession. Enrollment in SNAP reached a high in 2013, but has been slowly dropping the last three years.
This can be good and bad. As the economy is expected to recover, more people will be able to work and not need the assistance anymore (good!). However, as enrollment goes down, so will spending, and budgeters need to be careful not to cut back too far and allocate less money per person enrolled in the program (bad). For those that still need the help, carefully scaling back without making deep cuts, ideally to the point that there is more money for each of the lower overall number of participants, could be crucial in allowing low-income Americans and their children to have a healthy diet.
Another aspect to consider is the availability and affordability of fresh food. This is something Hillary Clinton hinted at on the campaign trail, saying that she will allocate money to farmer’s market and local food promotion programs, though neither candidate seems to have detailed how much they would allocate to the program.
Donald Trump has mentioned that he feels the program has issues with fraud, although data from the Agriculture Department shows that rates of overpayment and underpayment have been on a fairly steady decline for the last 25 years. The idea of the “welfare queen” has grasped the American psyche ever since Reagan coined the term, but the reality is that people using SNAP are in serious need of help affording food for themselves and their children.
The income cutoff for SNAP benefits is a net annual income of 100% of the national poverty line. This is $11,880 for a household of 1, $16,020 for 2, and $20,160 for 3. With costs like rent, utilities and transportation relatively fixed, food is one of the few areas where one can make cuts to cover for other areas.
USDA data from 2014 shows that, on what they call a “thrifty plan,” the average cost of food per month for a man age 19-50 is $187.50, and $166.90 for a woman of the same age. For children, cost starts at $95.30 when the child is one year old, and steadily rises to $157 when the child is 9-11. Using these numbers, about 1/5th of a person’s total net income would go to food, potentially leaving them unable to pay their other bills. The SNAP program allows these people more opportunity to buy healthy food, which can often be more expensive or difficult to reach in poor communities, and allow them to use their limited income for other expenses.
In an election year, when the elected official could mean 4-8 years of any given economic ideology, the importance of telling your local and national representatives about the importance of bringing down levels of food insecurity in the US can’t be overstated. Vote, write letters, and try the SNAP Challenge for yourself. It certainly isn’t an accurate picture of living in poverty, but rather a close examination of one section in a complex piece of pointillism that allows you to step back and understand the whole picture just a little bit better.