A few weeks ago John from Frugal Rules posted about the possibility of a cut to food stamp (or, really, SNAP) on a federal level. The article listed some interesting numbers, and referenced a video of a man from California who is essentially committing food stamp fraud, using food stamps so that he doesn’t have to work. (The whole thing seemed really outrageous to me; I don’t know if I even believe the whole thing was real.) The comments section had me going. I know people tend to be pseudo-polarized on this issue. I’m probably one of those people. I wanted to comment on pretty much everything everyone said. I thought it might be better to just write a post addressing some of the things I saw so I could explain why I have the opinions I do more fully. Hope that’s okay, John. Know that I respect you even though I may disagree on some points. The headings below are me paraphrasing some of the comments and sentiments.
They should have tighter restrictions/make it harder to get in on the food stamp/SNAP program.
I don’t know about that. Those who have been on welfare relate that it’s not an easy process. The man in the video said you have to certify once a year, but I that didn’t sound right to me. So I looked it up. In Pennsylvania, you have to re-certify every six months. And that’s if you have no changes to your household or income. Certifying requires that a ton of documents be presented. A ton. You are usually required to provide all of this paperwork on very short notice. Case workers are incredibly hard to get a hold of in most areas, making it harder to access their knowledge about what you need to provide and what you need to do should you have a change in your case. Getting on welfare is already hard, and as one of the commenters in John’s post pointed out, people who are just above the income limit aren’t doing very well, either. I think raising expectations or lowering the income limit would make things even worse for the people who are truly trying to use the system for what it’s there for: a stepping stone to build a better life while you’re going through a hellish financial time.
We should cut spending, but do it in a way that catches all food stamp fraud and isn’t an overall percentage cut to everyone who participates in the program.
Agreed. But there’s a major problem with that. It’s essentially that social workers don’t get paid enough. I’m sure there’s a few gems out there that work for state welfare systems that truly care about their clientele, but a lot of them are burnt out and getting paid crap. If you really want to weed out the moochers, you’re going to have to invest more in the infrastructure which means hiring more people to investigate cases or paying the people who are overburdened enough that they’re motivated to do a really great job. (Again, I know there’s some great ones out there. I just think they’re few and far between.) In order to fix this problem, I think you’d have to spend more rather than less.
I’m also not in favor of an across-the-board cut. I, like some of the commenters, think that there are other programs that could stand to take a hit before the one that provides food to those who otherwise would not be able to afford to eat.
People on welfare need to learn financial literacy. We should set that up for them.
Okay, but just so you know that’s going to add even more money to the budget. I think everyone needs to learn some financial literacy. To assume that just because someone is in a bad financial situation means that they are an idiot with money is misled. Maybe they became disabled and are unable to earn a living. Maybe they’d love to be out there earning their keep and keeping up with their bills independently, but are physically unable to. Maybe they haven’t been able to find a decent job in order to meet all of those financial goals. It’s hard to invest in an emergency fund or a Roth IRA when you’re struggling just to get enough cash together to make rent and put food on the table. You may end up working a ton of hours at a job that doesn’t pay much more money while you’re trying to get back on top. That doesn’t leave you a whole lot of time to do things that might increase your earning potential.
SNAP benefits may be able to take a little of the edge off. Maybe they’re giving that person a few less worries so that they’re able to work less hours and have time to get career training. Or actually be able to go on job hunts. Maybe they’re doing all that and they just can’t find jobs. The economy’s gotten better, but when it comes to interviews and hiring the power balance still lies largely with employers. There’s tons of competition.
I’m all for financial literacy. But middle-class families fund their lifestyle through debt all the time. They may have a big house and decent car, but how much of that is financed? They may have groceries on the table, but how much money is left in their bank account after that? Financial incompetence is not a problem unique to the poor. It may just be more visible with them.
We should give people incentives to get off the system.
Agreed. That seems to be the opposite of what’s happening, though. At least in the state of Pennsylvania. Not too long ago, they lowered how much money you could have in savings/as assets in order to qualify. Now, the total value of your second car, savings account, and any other assets (I believe home values are not included) cannot exceed $5,000. That seems like a good rule. If you have assets, you should liquidate them before turning to someone else for help. The problem is is that if you are trying to encourage someone not to rely on credit cards or to build up an emergency fund so that they don’t have to, limiting the amount they’re allowed to save is counterproductive. If anything, it’s going to keep them reliant on welfare longer. I take umbridge with the second car thing, too. Sure, you shouldn’t be driving around a Maserati. But if you’re a dual income household that has need of two cars in order to get to work, something that’s worth $5k is just barely above the beater range. And maybe not even. At least in this part of the country. A car that’s in bad shape is going to cause you to have more repairs. So you’ll need a bigger emergency fund. OH, WAIT…..
I saw this lady checking out in front of me at the grocery store and she got $50 of junk food. We should have rules that tell poor people they can only buy healthy food. This makes me angry.
Well, then calm down, friend. You don’t know what she has at home in her pantry. She might be completely set on fruits and veggies and whole grains. You don’t know how big her family is. Maybe she has five kids and her husband just lost his job. That $50 in junk food might be a week’s worth of snacks (though they may be unhealthy…have you never eaten an Oreo?) Maybe there’s a trunk-or-treat event her kids really want to participate in, but everyone has to pass out candy. (Things like that are going to be a pretty rare occurrence.) Or maybe, just maybe, she can’t afford to feed her family healthily, even with the food stamps. Because healthy food tends to be more expensive. (If you’d like to learn how to eat healthily on an extremely tight budget, check out The Frugal Exerciser’s article. It’s amazing.)
It always blows my mind when people think the government should interfere less in people’s lives by letting them “earn their keep” and provide less benefits, but it would be okay to govern their diet down to the grocery list. If the government came in and told richer people which foods they were and weren’t allowed to buy, I imagine there would be an uproar.
Once I was at a gas station where they accept EBT cards. There was a girl checking out. She was getting a pop after she had just pumped some gas. She ran her debit card through several times, and it kept getting declined. Clearly embarrassed, she pulled out her EBT card. “Sorry about that,” she said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” came back a snarky cashier. “I pay taxes so I’ve already paid for your pop.”
And then something amazing happened. Instead of being ashamed, she told him off. “You know what, I work hard, too. I don’t make a lot of money. I have a kid. But I also have a job and pay taxes. I’m taking classes online so that I can get off of the system. But I know I paid more than $1.79 in taxes last year. So don’t worry…this one’s on me. I’m not taking j@*# sh!t out of your pocket.”
I cheered like we just won the Super Bowl.
I would actually be willing to pay more in taxes for a supplemental program that you could only buy healthy foods on.
I have such great news for you! You already are! At least for women who are pregnant or for children. It’s called the Woman Infant Child program (WIC) and it does exactly that: gives people “checks” that allow them to buy fruits vegetables, grains, and proteins that aren’t through meat on a monthly basis. They have to buy things that are a certain size and of a certain brand, therefore ensuring nutritional value is met. They literally can’t check anything out that doesn’t meet the programs standards. The fact that this exists is another reason you should not judge the lady who checked out in front of you with all junk food. Maybe she’s set on healthy food because she’s already used her WIC checks for this week.
The surfer from California was able to buy sushi. I couldn’t buy sushi when I was on food stamps. But I could buy red bull. But not tea.
If you look closely at the package in the video, it looks kind of like DIY sushi…I don’t think it’s rolled up. I could be wrong. But generally the rule is you cannot buy hot, prepared dishes. While sushi meets the prepared part, it doesn’t meet the hot. Maybe that’s how he’s able to buy it in California.
Either way, the discrepancy in what you were allowed to buy vs what he could may be that you live in different states. The federal program lays out rules, but states have a little bit of wiggle room in changing them. For example, when I lived in Idaho, I briefly had a side job as a cashier at a grocery store. So I know that people could not buy energy drinks there using their SNAP benefits. But you can. I’m assuming the states tweak the restrictions a little bit as they see fit. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people here in PA buy tea. I could be mistaken on that, though.
Another interesting anecdote: also when I lived in Idaho, I once ordered a pizza. I paid a normal pizza price to a place I had heard rave reviews about and had it delivered. The delivery guy handed it to me….uncooked and wrapped in saran wrap. “What the hell is this?” (Hell is a swear word in eastern Idaho, just so you know.)
“Why didn’t you cook it?”
“You have to come in to the restaurant if you want cooked pizza. We only deliver them this way.”
“It’s just what we do.”
That’s one of the few times I haven’t given someone in the service industry a tip. I feel like a jerk retrospectively. It wasn’t his fault that the business had neglected to do half of their job.
A few months later I found out why they delivered uncooked pizzas. I lived in a college town, which would normally make you ineligible for food stamp benefits in most states. But this was a Mormon college, and Mormons usually have kids very, very young. So you have a bunch of college students with babies and they’re all eligible. You can’t get hot/prepared food on food stamps. But you can order a frozen pizza.
This business saw a need and they filled it. They were geniuses. I have no doubt that adjusting their product to meet eligibility requirements for the large SNAP beneficiary base was the biggest reason for their wild success and those rave reviews I heard.
The surfer guy is a jerk face.
Agreed. But he really is a rarity. You might not believe it. You might look at all the people who are receiving benefits and judge them all the be committing food stamp fraud by the few lazy scammers. That would be a terrible shame, though. Because most recipients are honest people just trying to get by. Some of them even have bigger plans in the works, and are using the system the way it’s intended to be used: as a stepping stone.