Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food Stamp Profiling Contributes to the Stigma

The Food Stamp program has always been a contentious, heavily partisan issue. A recent New York Times article highlights the back-and-forth that has characterized the highs and lows of the program, and where it seems to be headed. Today I've chosen to write about this controversial subject to, in part, document of my own direct personal experience. Though food stamp usage might have been more stigmatized in an earlier year, there is unfortunately still much bias and prejudice directed towards those who take advantage of its existence. Until this is eliminated, others will refuse to apply and find their poverty and need considerably worsened. If this be Welfare, it is one of the most essential safety nets ever devised and my fear is that a resurgent GOP presence will eliminate it altogether, or prune it back considerably.

I have mentioned before that I have been receiving food stamps for the past couple months. Let me say resolutely here and now that they have been an invaluable resource, particularly because I am now officially disabled and have severe financial limitations as a result. Americans have a tendency to discount the combined expense of groceries because we assume offhandedly that the food we purchase ought to be plentiful and cheap. In reality, food is much more of an income drain than we really think. By means of an informal exercise, if you feel so inclined, add up your own combined grocery bill for a month, and see where you end up. The total will surprise you. As it stands, my monthly allotment of food stamps is reliably expended well before thirty days are up, though I certainly am glad to have some means by which I don't have to dip into my my rather modest reserves to spend on the most basic of necessities.

More recently, however, I have unfortunately received the scorn of a few supermarket cashiers, who often take one look at me and assume that there should be no reason at all that I'm not able to pay for my groceries out of pocket. Initial observations can be deceiving. If you looked closely at what I was wearing, you'd see that though my clothes are clean and look presentable, most of them are two and three years old. If you bothered to look at the brand of heavy coat I wear all winter long, you'd recognize it was bought at Target, not a department store. If you looked at my cell phone, you'd see that it's already obsolete and has a cracked face that could only be fixed by my buying a brand new one, which isn't exactly in the cards right now. The iPod I own is the cheapest model around and was, I note, a Christmas present from someone else. Moreover, I wasn't always poor, or rather, I wasn't always this poor.

I suppose someone who looks like me might not fit the profile, so to speak. We jump up and down about profiling in criminal matters, but the truth is that we all profile others, since we frequently make snap judgments based on a minimum of hard evidence. I get this identical reaction when I mention that I am, believe it or not, disabled. To many, my disability might be invisible, but for me, I never get the opportunity to forget, nor overlook that a chronic disease of the brain known as bipolar disorder is very real and very present. It might be a bit easier for some if I sat in a wheelchair, I suppose. To be blunt, in the minds of some, apparently a relatively young Caucasian male using food stamps doesn't seem to pass their sniff test. I really have no inclination to make a big deal out of this. I try to live my faith and practice forgiveness, but the attitudes I get from some, but not all, frequently make grocery shopping a stressful experience, to say nothing of the need to overlook and take account for other peoples' own judgmental attitudes. Over time I've learned to avoid certain cashiers at local grocery stores to avoid having to be privy to their own personal prejudices.

I find it exasperating, to say the least, at how indebted certain people are to conservative ideology on this topic. Ronald Reagan's first run in 1976 had him criticize some supposed "strapping young buck", never identified by name, who used his food stamps to buy a steak when others were waiting in line to buy hamburger meat. This anecdote utterly infuriates me because it's a completely unfair, biased view of reality. To be sure, I do certainly buy hamburger meat on a frequent basis because it can be made to stretch over several days. But, I also have been known to buy a steak every now and then because it augments a meal well and eliminates my need to buy as much at one time for one meal. Without being too particular here, if I eat a steak one night, it's so filling I don't have to buy much else to round out my dinner. Furthermore, I don't buy the most expensive cuts and can usually find discounted steak at not all that much more than maybe a couple pounds of ground beef.

According to the Times article referenced above, 1 in 8 Americans is on food stamps. The percentage of people on the rolls varies wildly based on race. An interactive graphic reveals in Washington, DC, where I live, only 1% of Whites are on food stamps, but fully 30% of Blacks are. This is a deceptive statistic that reveals the vast income discrepancies in the District. Caucasians who live within the District of Columbia are some of the wealthiest of the wealthy, while African-American residents are some of the poorest of the poor. I can imagine that this creates no small degree of resentment, but I don't appreciate being the target of income discrepancies I actively speak out again and did nothing to put in force in the first place.

To pull in an additional metric, it's not like I'm that far removed from the situation, lest I forget. The rural Alabama county where my Father was born and raised has fully 22% of all residents enrolled, including a staggering 44% of children. 16% of Whites are on food stamps, as are 38% of Blacks. When the textile mills went away, so too did the county's largest employer. Many residents felt no inclination to go beyond a high school diploma, since they fully intended to spend a career working in the mills just as their parents and grandparents had done before them. Now that sure thing job is simply no more. The recent recession has been especially demoralizing and impoverishing for the working poor and has exacerbated existing trends. Bad situations have merely gotten worse.

The tension between self-reliance and relief can be seen at the food bank’s office in Harlem, where the city lets outreach workers file applications.

Juan Diego Castro, 24, is a college graduate and Americorps volunteer whose immigrant parents warned him “not to be a burden on this country.” He has a monthly stipend of about $2,500 and initially thought food stamps should go to needier people, like the tenants he organizes. “My concern was if I’m taking food stamps and I have a job, is it morally correct?” he said.

But federal law eases eligibility for Americorps members, and a food bank worker urged him and fellow volunteers to apply, arguing that there was enough aid to go around and that use would demonstrate continuing need. “That meeting definitely turned us around,” Mr. Castro said.

These were also my same reservations at first. However, financial necessity was just that--necessary. To be sure, I have no desire to stay on Food Stamps forever, but I have to face the reality of the situation. A frustrating job climate even for able-bodied people has left those of us with severe limitations with nowhere to go. My goal is to one day get my illness in check, though I also note, with much regret, that I'll always need to self-monitor and opt for work that I can handle. Until unemployment rates stabilize, which I'm expecting will take years, I have resolved that I need these things for right now. I think I've always related more to the New Deal terminology of all these safety net services: relief. Right now, relief is what we all need.


Gail said...

HI KEVIN, Great article you have written. And yes, relief indeed. I am in the midst of the SSDI paperwork process - Oh My!!! It is SO invasive and extensive. ANd my Mom, almost 87, on a fixed income with expenses just applied for food stamps. I will let you know!! SHe needs some relief, breathing room so to speak.

So much came to mind as I read how you are perceived by the store clerks - I sit here shaking my head in dismay.

Love to you

Volly said...


I'm absolutely with you on this and commend you for speaking out. As I've had to explain to some clueless types, my husband and I are those "working poor" you hear tell about. We're not quite poor enough yet for Food Stamps, or even a kind word from the United Way. We've checked. No go. But as with you, the most incredible things have been moved over to the "luxury" column: Most fresh fruit and vegetables, bagels, cream cheese, brand name anything, chicken breast, clothing or accessories of any kind (I bought $8 worth of underwear with a Walmart gift card last month and felt like the frackin Queen of England); air freshener, light bulbs, a decent litter box and veterinary care for our cat, saving even $25 a week, eating out anywhere. Everyone evaluates our level of need based on gross income, but ignores the fact that just the most basic necessities, such as mortgage, utilities, food and fuel for the commute to and from our JOBS eats nearly all of that up the second it hits the bank.

I applaud anyone who can get food stamps. It tells me the system is still working, a little bit, at least for now.