We Need to Stop Thinking Public Assistance is a Luxury.

I was on food stamps once, and it wasn’t a fuckin’ luxury.

I’m writing this for the Clam as an anonymous contributor (adding all the swears I possibly can), because of the social stigma that comes with being on food stamps. It should not be there, but it is. Here’s the thing: the recession hit and shit happened. I lost my job, we had young kids, I decided to go back to school after I could find nothing at all in my field for a ridiculous length of time, and we ended up on food stamps for a time. It took awhile to get back on our feet, but now we’re off – kind of like most people. After all, the average family is on food stamps for 8-10 months.  A lot of people had it way worse than we did.

This week, a Missouri lawmaker proposed a bill that would limit the kind of food that could be purchased under the SNAP program. Not content with the reasonable federal food stamp guidelines like “no alcohol, hot prepared food, or cigarettes”, they set out to make their own.

What do they want to cut? Lobster and steak, naturally. Because you know, people below the poverty line are so clearly going hog-wild and blowing taxpayer money on lobsters and filets. In addition, chips cookies and soda would be on the banned list. Potato chips.

Not for you, poor person! Also, no ginger ale. For reasons.

Not for you, poor person! Also, no ginger ale. For reasons.

This kind of thinking irritates me beyond belief. Policing what the poor eat is meant to do absolutely nothing more than shame them. It sends the message that they are too stupid to make their own choices for the sin of not having money. Some of the same people who crow on about the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and limiting the scope of our government have no problem, apparently, telling other people what to do.

Here’s some truth about food stamps from someone who was on them long enough to know.

The average benefit per family member meal is $1.45, although in MA it’s higher (we got closer to $1.60ish, but there have been cuts to the program since my income came back). That amount leaves little room for error, and most families have to make hard choices about what’s going to feed them or end up spending some of their own cash. I was lucky (loose quotes on that) that we still had one solid income and unemployment, so we could go over that amount and cover the difference with cash and not lose our house. For comparison, the average family’s grocery bill runs from $146-289 per week. At the low end, that’s $1.74 per meal. At the high end, $3.44. Food stamp recipients get a below-average benefit allotment every month.

So why, exactly, are we limiting them from buying steak or lobster? Where does the “steak” line get drawn? What if it’s heavily discounted because it goes bad tomorrow? Still not okay to buy? This seems especially stupid for anyone who lives in this area because let’s face it, Market Basket always has lobsters extremely cheap for a few weeks in the summer, and it can be cheaper or at least comparable to any other meat source. Either food stamp recipients are cutting that money from other parts of their food budget (for instance, cutting out cereal and replacing it with Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel), or at the end of the month they’re going to be spending their own cash anyway. And, more importantly, steak and lobster tastes great, it’s packed full of protein, and it’s a nice treat for people who don’t really have that much else going for them. More than 30% of food stamp recipients are employed, by the way, and that number is rising – with many more on Social Security. If there is no child or elderly person in the household, adults with no income are limited to 3 months of benefits.

And that, really, is the sad part about it. The lawmakers in Missouri want to remove one of the little joys in life – a really good, tasty meal that can make or break your entire week – from poor people. People who lost their jobs. Single moms. Retirees. The kind of folks who need a small thing now and again to grind through an exhausting existence. And soda? Let me explain something to you: you go to school full time, while your spouse works, and you have two small kids without a goddamn caffeine boost in the afternoon and then come back and we’ll talk. Yeah, I bought soda. I didn’t drive into a bridge abutment out of sheer delusional exhaustion on the way home from night class. And yeah, I bought steak once in awhile. Because steak is fucking awesome and this is America and I ate a lot of Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel in my off-time.

I dare anyone supporting this kind of asshole legislation go to their nearest Walmart or McDonalds and tell the worker behind the counter that they don’t deserve to eat steak and lobster ever, not even for their anniversary, not for their birthday, because they don’t work hard enough and don’t deserve it.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.





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  1. Fuck every damn Republican. And every asshole who poor-shames – especially as almost every one of them are just a few months of no income away from poverty and homelessness, themselves.

    What a shitty country this can be.

  2. …and the Conservative Party at home are no better, either.

  3. Everyone needs to remember this at election time. What you see now is the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Totally agree. Let folks make their own choices.

  5. While your comments are rational, that, as you have probably already guessed, is irrelevant. The purpose of this legislation is two-fold. One, just as with many private charities of old (and some today), you couldn’t just give money, you had to make their moral choice for them. Two, even with the examples you gave, it is highly unlikely, regardless of what talk show callers claim to “always see ahead of me in the checkout line” that these items are being purchased on any kind of regular basis. But by putting them into law, it raises it to “truthiness” – since “People must be doing this, or they wouldn’t need this law”.

    I see people grocery shopping for families, not buying “luxury” items, and cannot get my head around how anyone can afford to raise a family, with or without assistance.

  6. Thank you for this. I have been very fortunate in my life and not had to use some of the tattered safety nets available. It’s luck that dictates such things and the quality of human being has nothing to do with it. Ticks me off how awful people can be and if I had my way, the tax money I pay would provide food and shelter for people in need FIRST. Dang…ha ha ha…hot subject for me. I live in Seattle [the fastest growing city in this country] and we have so many people in need it’s appalling. More people should be ashamed that there are so many people in want and can’t we do more? Not try and shame others for having some tough breaks.

    And BTW, potato chips are an absolute essential for me. I’ve never been rich and I’m just keeping my head above water, but nobody better ever try and tell me I can’t have potato chips. GEESH…

  7. On more than one occasion from 2008-10 I have had to visit the Open Door food pantry. Haven’t ever applied for food assistance here in Ma. Though did once in N.C. For a short while I worked for the Asheville ASPCA. We would first test animals for “food aggressive” behavior. Growling and biting over food if another anmal or person was near it. Those animals were typically euthanized as a matter of course. Legislators who bite and growl over people getting fed the same food they’re given, qualify.

  8. Char James-Tanny

    I could have written this. (Although my numbers were slightly different…we got the MA monthly max, which worked to out $1.85 a meal per person because we had an “elder” (hubby turned 60), a disabled person, and a minor.)

    And we had a really hard time of it last summer when Market Basket went through its bad period because I had to find new places where I could get good food cheap.

    And in order to stick to the budget, I think we had red meat five times during the six months we were on food stamps, and four of those times were provided by friends.

    I just hate that someone…anyone…thinks that trying to control what people eat if they’re getting food stamps is a good idea.

    (BTW, MA did consider something similar at one point and decided against it.)

  9. It’s very challenging to meet the federal nutritional guidelines of a healthy diet while relying only on food stamps for purchasing food. I’ve read accounts by politicians and social activists who live on the food stamp budget for a week to a month – nobody wanted to stay on it!! Funny how lots of politicians pretend to be “Christian” but forget the part of the Golden Rule that says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
    You are absolutely right about the idea that a good steak or lobster once in a while has benefits far beyond filling the belly – it’s a bit of dignity, of being ‘not poor’ for a while – and gives a little hope for better days. Without hope, humans stop trying. Thanks for sharing your story.

  10. Now that ‘food stamps’ are on debit-type cards, why don’t these repugnican asshats access the data and find out exactly what people are buying?

    I know damned good and well it’s not lobsters and steaks.

  11. I am so with you on this. I have been involved with a food pantry for years and have had folks come up to me complaining that we accept and give out cookies. COOKIES! I have to bite my tongue and sound really diplomatic when I explain to them that we feel that no child should go without a treat here and there just because his or her parents are having financial struggles. Thank you for posting!

  12. and BTW, the SNAP (aka Food Stamps) was originally a FARM SUBSIDY program created so that farmers could get a living income from the food that grew/raised. The money was given to the low-income people and they spent all of it at the grocery stores on, get this, food. Then the agribusinesses got involved and wanted to get the money directly from the government without having to actually produce anything. Go figure.

  13. So good to see someone tell it like it is. I was on SNAP for six months and had to budget to the last penny to make it last most of the month. I don’t recall much lobster or steak, but I do remember a lot of chicken and pork.

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