I never knew that, for a period of my childhood, food stamps kept me fed. It wasn’t until I took an Intro to Public Policy course during my second-year fall that I learned about food stamps, their “benefits” and who they help. I knew my parents struggled financially after they separated, but they made sure their kids never worried about money. The class had a module on social welfare policy which taught us about different government programs aimed at assisting the poor, unemployed and marginalized in society. We discussed different programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, a cash welfare system for the very poor), minimum wage and others. Throughout the module, however, I noticed that programs providing benefits to the most vulnerable populations were commonly political and rarely seemed to pursue their noted mission of lifting people out of poverty.
Though the module offered dozens of graphs, charts and statistics with insightful numbers, data can do little to show the individual impact of policy. Throughout my public policy classes, I always have long and complicated academic papers assigned which describe how to help poor people, even though most of the time these articles are written by old, wealthy and institutionally educated white academics. To better understand how social welfare helps (or hurts) a community, legislators should look to their constituents who participate in such programs.
After reading the papers, graphs and data, I wanted to learn from the perspective of the true working class, so I could better grasp what eligible participants thought about the efficacy of social welfare policies. After first learning about SNAP in the introductory course, I called my mom and asked her if she knew what SNAP was and if she used SNAP benefits to feed my two siblings and myself. Her response: “YUP, we were broke,” in a comical manner.
Since that initial call last fall, I was trying to remember more of the conversation surrounding SNAP and her experience with it. This semester, however, I am taking a social policy seminar, a course that dives into many different welfare policy areas such as tax benefits, aging policy, education, housing and universal basic income. Again being reminded of the worsening state of America’s poor through this class, I wanted to leave the boring (but informative!) white papers and research studies and engage with the working class directly. So, I conducted a formal interview with my mom to gauge her thoughts on the SNAP program.
We discussed the application process first. From 2007 to 2010 my mom was on SNAP benefits. She began to describe the rather long process it takes to determine whether one is eligible for benefits. First, she had to go to the Illinois Department of Human Services. SNAP is a federally funded program that grants states flexibility when determining the program’s design and implementation. After arriving at the Department of Human Services and filling out the paper application, one waits at home to receive an interview invitation in the mail. Though I knew states varied in SNAP eligibility, I never would have thought an interview would be a necessary component when trying to feed your family.
This interview process is a perfect example of an administrative burden that plagues social policy. Administrative burdens refer to different costs associated with joining an assistance program. Learning about how to apply for a program, filling out complicated documents and dealing with the stress and stigma that come with government aid are all examples of administrative burdens that deter many people from receiving benefits such as SNAP. My mom went on to tell me the interview began with questions about basic information such as her income, amount of children and employment status, but the interview soon turned when they asked if she was on drugs, if she was pregnant, why she was attending school, what she was studying in school and other questions unrelated to funding groceries. Finally came the waiting period. They reviewed my mother’s case and eventually she received a letter stating she was approved with a plastic “SNAP” card (electronic benefits transfer card) attached.
For many SNAP applicants, legislative matters such as finding the time to complete hours of confusing paperwork and being dragged through a prying interview prevent them from receiving the aid they need. After dealing with a divorce and jumping from relative to relative for housing while needing to provide for three young children, low-income head-of-households like my mom shouldn’t have to spend hours appeasing the bureaucracy riddled with administrative burdens just to put food on the table.
My mom told me how she felt embarrassed and ashamed buying groceries and how she “felt like people were looking at (her), like (she’s) abusing the system. (She) didn’t want to look like a welfare person mooching off the system.” This fear is common amongst single mothers on welfare. The “welfare queen” is a stereotype that defines a welfare recipient as a nonworking fraud with many children who takes excessive government assistance for personal gain. Some Americans view the stigma surrounding “food stamps” and cash assistance as another social burden placed onto struggling people. The American Dream makes it so individuals only value financial stability when it is earned by way of labor, and so many feel that one’s lacking stability is due to their own personal choices. This combined personal experience of being discriminated against, or mistreated, when using government assistance and the social stigma around “food stamps” can make recipients feel ashamed of their participation in such programs. Many assume providing welfare encourages laziness, but in reality, SNAP requires a strict work schedule and other requirements to receive benefits; in fact, stricter demands would not better help the poor.
If one is able to successfully navigate the application process and satisfy the demanding eligibility requirements, they are deemed a participant worthy of such benefits. However, once the benefits arrive, restrictions come with. SNAP’s obvious purpose is to supply funds for food, but many other household necessities are left out of the eligible shopping list. Essential items like vitamins, over-the-counter medicines and supplements are defined as unnecessary, and therefore are not eligible products for SNAP benefits. Other “unnecessary” items include laundry detergent, diapers, toiletries, pet food and other basic household needs.
I asked my mom if the funding she had received was enough. She explained that despite receiving $300-$500 a month, the funds were never sufficient enough to cover all eating expenses for our family of four.
“I didn’t care if I didn’t eat, I just wanted you guys to eat” my mom said.
While being supported by the government’s social safety net, my mother still had to tap into her student loans to feed her family and pay for her kids’ needs.
In 2010 my mom began her career as an elementary school teacher that provided a stable income, which meant she no longer received SNAP benefits. The job came with medical benefits and other social insurances that the government failed to provide. Though SNAP is a program meant to lift people out of poverty, she stated that getting a job was the main source of financial stability, and that the benefits were minimal in contributing to her financially comfortable life.
My mom explained that overall, SNAP did help her feed my siblings and myself, and it gave her a little less stress. Despite this, she knew that without her privilege, the opportunity to pursue an education later in life and a supportive partner and family, she would not be where she is now. Millions of other Americans do not have the opportunity to mobilize and are often left relying on programs like SNAP (unless they’re kicked out). Though this may provide a certain level of stability, the average SNAP benefit is a mere $127 a month, and it comes with many other behavioral, educational and psychological costs. Reducing these administrative burdens and strengthening our welfare programs, first by empathizing with the working class at the forefront of policymaking, is crucial to making sure children do not go hungry and hardworking individuals are given the opportunity to step out of poverty.
MiC Columnist Hugo Quintana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.