Thursday, May 03, 2007

Living on the food stamp budget

For many Americans who are poor, life is a long road of one tribulation after another. It is not just the difficulty of acquiring food. A low-income American must in addition struggle to find adequate housing, appropriate health care, and affordable transportation, let alone more ephemeral goods such as a safe neighborhood, equal rights before the law, and the fundamental decency and respect that every one of us deserves as a human being.

Indeed, for many low-income Americans, access to enough food may not be the worst of that long list of tribulations. The real retail consumer price of food is lower in the contemporary United States than it is in other countries or at other times in our own history. The federal government serves low-income Americans with a national entitlement program for food, whereas there is no such national entitlement program for housing or other important and expensive basic needs.

I appreciate the spirit of the recent much-publicized effort of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski to practice living on a tight budget, even as I must with a sigh quibble about the details. Kulongoski is trying to live on a food budget of $21 per week, which is described in an Associated Press article by Julia Silverman as "the same amount that the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries." But the federal food stamp benefit is designed around a food budget of $155 monthly for a single person or $518 for a family of four. That is equivalent to $30 or $35 per week per person.

Kulongoski's much lower figure comes from the average food stamp benefit. The food stamp benefit formula provides the highest benefit amount to those with the least cash income, and lower benefit amounts to those with more cash income, so nobody -- even in government -- expects anybody to be able to afford enough food on the average food stamp benefit. The average amount that recipients spend on groceries, and the average amount that the Food Stamp Program is designed to support in the participant's budget, are both higher.

It's not an entirely harmless error. Some advocates for low-income Americans have been pushing hard for an increase in the food stamp benefit. But whose benefits should be increased? Should it be the destitute mother of three children, who currently has $518 monthly in food benefits but barely a dollar of cash income? Why doesn't somebody ask her whether she wants more food stamps or some other more general income support? Should it be the low-income working family or retiree, who currently lives at 130% of the poverty line? Certainly, such people don't get very generous food stamp benefits, but where is the progressivity in raising federal assistance for them without increasing cash income for the mother of three?

As a publicity event based on a misdiagnosis of the tribulations that low-income Americans face, the Oregon governor's exercise provides an unnecessary target for heartless critics. And perhaps it provides a reassuring picture of an easy remedy -- more food -- when we really have a bigger challenge to face in renewing our commitment to addressing poverty and offering equal economic opportunities to all Americans. That agenda starts with education reform and funding (such as this initiative in Massachusetts and similar efforts at the federal level). But, even in the food stamp policy arena, several priorities precede an increase in the benefit amount for current participants: increased outreach, program simplification, continued reductions in the paperwork burden of participating, improving the program's effectiveness in influencing nutrition quality and reducing hunger, and -- if there is an increase in the maximum benefit -- increasing the flexibility for participants to spend those resources on all of their basic needs as they see fit.

(Comments are open -- keep it polite but please feel free to disagree! See also Half Changed World and another old post. I'm glad to be back to writing here and regret ever pausing.)


Yoni Freedhoff, MD said...

Welcome back!

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

ATTENTION: Citizens of the Free World. This is an alert code "Washington". Please spread the message far and wide. Thousands of Chinese and Indian lobbyists will be descending upon Washington DC and State Capitols nationwide Monday to ensure the growth of unregulated trade with China and India. It is important to distract these lobbyists and use whatever means necessary to prevent them from reaching their target legislators. Try a long-winded conversation about how sick your cat or dog is, and if that fails, try wine and sexual favors. Drain their bank accounts and libidos. These lobbyists must be distracted and disrupted, whatever the cost, until further notice. This is a trade war. Alert: code "Washington". Please spread the word.

Anonymous said...

We spend too much money for too few real benefits with the current food stamp program. A program that issued coupons for a balanced diet of basic foods (e.g. meat, potatoes, rice, flour, sugar) would reduce obesity, increase the amount of food per dollar spent (eliminating all processed foods would reduce costs five fold), and increase demand for local produce. True, this may not be the most satisfying approach as some researchers point out that these coupons stigmatize users. But, it shouldn't be the job of the U.S. government to make people happy, just to make sure they are adequately and properly fed.

Anonymous said...

Surprized said...
I found out something surprising when a friend of mine got on food stamps. She could never afford to have Coke products in her house when she was on her own making a meager income. Or candy bars. Now that she qualifies for food stamps she can buy all the junk food she wants for her and the kids. Why does the food stamp program claim to be advocating nutrition? There is no or very little nutritional value in Cokes and M&M's. She says the program could save millions of dollars (or billions) if the non-nutritive foods were off limits. No wonder there is an obesity problem with our kids. If we provide it, they will eat it. If they have a choice, they will reach for the junk food every time. This is taxpayers dollars. She can't buy things that are prepared like a whole roasted chicken ($4.00 at Walmart) because that is not covered by her food stamps. But what IS covered? Coke, Kool-Aid, Sprite, Candy bars, gum, you name it in the junk food isles. How does that kind of system teach nutrition?!Perhaps some Coke product lobbyists are in the pockets of the Food Stamp program? Yes, if Coke was cut out there would be a fall in the stock prices of Coke. But what's right is right, and what's wrong is wrong. And this is just really wrong.

Breana said...

I happen to be on food stamps with my mom. It is just the two of us. We love healthy food but can't afford it. Do you want to know why? My mom gets unemployment which goes to her bills. It used to be my brother, sister, me and my mother and we would get a little over $300. But it would only last for 3 weeks. Now that it is just me and my mom, we get $108. That just so happens to be under the amount a single person would get. that last for about 2 weeks. Technically, most people on food stamps have 5 weeks to spend their money. That would be us. How in the world can we survive off of the amount we are given. And the reason for this small amount is that the food stamp office said that they made a mistake on their part and are now being penalized. They took off i think about $40 a month for a year because of their mistake with our food stamps. My mom is currently going to school and there are literally NO jobs where I live. Very few people are hired. We want to healthy, not consume junk food. Healthy food cost. I would like to know who made up this amount of living prices on the food stamps so I can shove that card down their throat. Not literally, but I would like to see them survive for one month on the only means for paying for food. They may gain a little weight from all of that junk food or they would just have to starve. I feel as if people should realize that no one can really survive on food stamps with out other money too. That, we don't have. I think other people should hear other voices. I'm not try to pity myself but I'm tired of articles saying survive on the food stamp budget. What budget! Are you talking about that $21 dollars a week for 5 weeks? Ha! Not with two people, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I agree that some people need additional assistance and should not have to starve. However, there is SO many errors in the food stamp system. The system is to help people who struggle have a balanced nutrional meal. Just yesterday I got in the grocery line behind a lady who paid with food stamps and purchased bubble gum, Coke, M&M's, crab legs, and steak. Since when did these foods be considered healthy and necessary? As a working indiviual I have to budget for items such as these. It just does not seem right!! The food stamp system should be used for healthy items such as bread, milk, eggs, cheese, and chicken. As a hard working citizen, it is VERY discouraging. I forgot to mention that this lady in the grocery line got into a nice car while talking on her iPhone. Something must be done about getting more control over the items purchased or sooner then later everyone will result to food stamps and our government will be in more debt then we are now.