By Brenda Palomo, SNAP Outreach Coordinator
On an income of $600 a month, Valerie** somehow managed to get by with her bills and responsibilities. Under such a tight budget, however, nutrition sometimes went by the wayside. She explained, “a lady told me I need to eat a lot of vegetables. I love vegetables, but I can’t afford them.” At age 77, Valerie’s voice shakes when she speaks. She is a few inches short of 5 feet tall, and for the last 20 years since her husband passed away she has struggled to make ends meet by herself in her mobile home near Felton, Delaware. She used to work at a local manufacturing plant, now she depends on her measly monthly social security check and has never before had to apply for government assistance. As I began to fill her online application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) she thanked me for helping her, because she had no idea how to use a computer.
Valerie represents thousands of seniors who are in need of assistance as food prices rise and social security incomes remain fixed. She also represents a huge demographic of elderly people who have never received government benefits, even when they need them. There are many reasons for this, starting with rampant myths that have stigmatized the program as unnecessary welfare, a drain on the economy or a breeding ground for fraud. In fact, the program is highly effective in its purposes. There is about a 1% fraud rate in the program due to increased oversight and new technology that has made all exchanges traceable through Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards.
Additionally, SNAP is beneficial to the economy. At the state level, when SNAP funds are spent, they provide a boost to the local economy: for every $5 of SNAP benefits that are spent, economists say the increase is actually equivalent to a $9 boost. At the national level, SNAP has been designed to expand or shrink according to need, so when people need it most the program will expand to provide a bit of relief until recipients can regain their financial footing and raise themselves out of the eligible income range. So although the current charged political environment has many bashing the high costs of SNAP, it is important to keep in mind that the state of the economy has driven many out of a job or to lower pay. Currently the national rate of unemployment and underemployment stands at 14.3%, which correlates highly with the SNAP participation rate of 15.1%. As the economy recovers, the costs will shrink, which is already evident in recent months. In fact, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), in the month of February 2013 alone (the most recent data available), participation in SNAP decreased nationwide by more than 213,000 people.
Throughout the country, SNAP Outreach Programs just like the one at the Food Bank of Delaware aim to make these important benefits available to some of the most vulnerable populations by de-stigmatizing the program and reassuring people just like Valerie that it is okay to apply for much needed help. The All-American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirit is strong in the people we meet; many insist that if it takes away from someone who needs it more, they would not like to receive benefits, even – as one person admitted once- with the prospects of eating only a can of beans for dinner. It is our responsibility to let these fellow patriots know that, for the moment, they are the ones who “need it more” and that with a supplement to their food budgets and more nutritious diets, we are only helping to provide essential tools for them to tug those boot straps up.
We also need to urge our representatives to remember this American spirit and embody that willingness to give up a little if it will help those with less, ultimately raising the whole of American society. All of us need some initiative to pull ourselves out of hardship without leaving our fellow Americans behind when they are most vulnerable. The Farm Bill, the controversial legislation that is creating headlines all over the country, is being brought to vote within the next two weeks. This bill dictates the whole budget for SNAP benefits, among other agricultural policies like farm subsidies- and this year congress is on a path to make immense cuts to the SNAP Program. It is highly irresponsible for members of our congress to make platitudes about the program not working and simply propose to cut it, when in reality what the program needs is closer study to continue making it more effective. It does not make sense to design a program to grow in times of need and then abolish it because it is working the way it was designed. The way to make the country more financially stable and save money is not by dropping the safety net that prevents our citizens from falling through the cracks. What can we say about ourselves as Americans, when a person like Valerie, who has been a productive member of society her whole life, stops receiving the small supplement that allows her to buy slightly more nutritious food? How can we continue to develop policy restricting nutritionally-hollow foods, when we do little to provide alternatives to unhealthy choices for low-income families?
The SNAP program is not perfect- there is always room for improvement- but that requires closer examination and calculated policy changes, not the outright slashing of funding. SNAP and its beneficiaries are not at fault for the financial indiscretions of our government officials, the problem is much deeper than that, and decreasing the limited resources that low-income Americans can use to access of the most basic human needs is definitely not the solution.
*The name has been changed to protect the confidentiality of the individual.
For more information on the Farm Bill and what you can do to help prevent cuts, please visit: http://help.feedingamerica.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Advocacy_Take_Action&s_foodbank=true&s_src=foodbank
Food and Nutrition Service : http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.htm