Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Champagne Taste, On A Food Stamp Budget

Every now and then I find myself in line at the grocery store on the 1st or the 15th. I look at a few of the items in my basket, and do the math in my head to make sure that I don't spend too much and I hate to have to debit or charge $5 or $10 just because I forgot to go to the ATM machine. Usually I'm at the end of a long line getting frustrated and annoyed because the lady ahead of me got the wrong size Clorox, and sent her son back to grab the one that was on sale. This kid never runs, and he always takes his sweet time while his mother stands there making an effort to be oblivious to the fact that there are 5 people waiting in line for him. Just then I notice the contents of the cart in front of me, lobster, or fillet mignon, or king crab legs. Each and every time I wonder the same thing. How in the world did I miss the sign? "Lobster, fillet mignon, king crab legs on sale." Then right around the time that I decide to question the cashier, the customer with the cart in front of me whips out an E.B.T (electronic benefits transfer) card. For those who are not familiar, an EBT card is the electronic equivalent of food stamps. A pre paid government issued, tax payer funded, debit card given to benefit recipients intended for food purchases only. I automatically get a little resentful, and rush to judgement. Not because I can't buy the same things but because they can buy the same things with my money without having to put in a 10-12 hr day, and while I don't know their particular stories, I do know my own. I know that I work hard to provide a comfortable life for my family, and the stigma attached to anyone buying "high end" food with an EBT card is that they are milking the system, they don't work, and probably don't want to work.
Little did I know that there is actually a descriptive phrase for my supermarket stress. "Register resentment". As it turns out I am not the only one. 

Janina Riley noticed a woman muttering behind her in the checkout line as she paid for food at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh last April.

"I can't believe she's buying that big-ass cake with food stamps," the woman said, according to Riley.

Riley, 19, had just used a government issued debit card to pay for most of her groceries, which included a cake for her son that said "Happy First Birthday Xavier" in a theme from the movie "Cars." She glared at the women for a second, then decided to confront her.

"I was just like, 'Shut the f@%k up,'" Riley said. "You don't know what I'm doing with these food stamps."

Riley's rather profane response did not help her cause at all. In fact, it played into a stereotype. That of a very young, able bodied welfare mother spending her "hand out" frivolously.

The fact is, many Americans do not want to let people on food stamps eat cake. This sentiment is particularly prevalent among conservatives in Congress. Cash register resentment of the sort directed at Riley is mostly fueled by conservative animosity toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It's a petty path toward a huge target. As SNAP enrollment has surged to nearly 50 million in the wake of the Great Recession, the program's annual cost has more than doubled to $80 billion. 

Janina Riley said the situation at Giant Eagle didn't escalate after she confronted the mumbling woman. In her opinion it wouldn't have started at all if the person had known that she was studying to become a nurse, and that she already worked more than 30 hours a week as an aide in a nursing home.

People have to be poor in order to receive nutrition assistance. The maximum gross monthly income for SNAP eligibility in Pennsylvania, for instance, is $2,018 for a household of two, and the family can't own assets worth more than $5,500 (though there are several exceptions, like a single car). Most recipients qualify based on their participation in another program like Medicaid.

At $10 per hour, Riley's wages leave her poor enough to qualify for $124 a month in food stamps. At the Giant Eagle that day, she used her full monthly benefit to pay for part of her cart full of food and roughly $80 of her own money for the rest.

"Most people do work. It's just we don't make enough money, that's the problem," Riley said. "The biggest misconception is that people on food stamps sit on their butts all day."

Ms. Riley is part of the 30 percent of SNAP recipients who earn money by working, and the 91 percent whose annual incomes are at or below the poverty line. Most recipients are either children, elderly or disabled.

But in the public imagination, there is little or no distinguishing between hard-working single moms and welfare queens.

It's a gripe going back at least 20 years. In 1993, the Columbus Dispatch ran an angry letter to the editor in reference to a food stamp recipient buying "two bottles of wine, steak and a large bag of king crab legs.''

The crab complaint has reoccurred  more than a dozen times in newspapers across the country, including this 2007 story from a reader in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News: "After working a typical 12-hour shift, I had to stop by the local grocery store. Standing in line behind an oversized woman with three kids, I noticed the items going through the checkout. She had two 10-pound packs of frozen crab legs and two large packs of rib-eye steaks among a couple of vegetable items totaling up to an excess of $60."

Nutrition assistance is a federal program administered by states at the ground level. State and federal lawmakers have long sought new restrictions on what nutrition assistance can buy. Fancy food stories are often the reason. For instance, Wisconsin state Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) cited cash register situations as his rationale for a bill restricting food stamp purchases earlier this year.

"Anecdotally, we’ve all heard the stories about people standing in line behind the person who is buying the tenderloin, the porterhouse and they’re using their EBT card to do it, while you and I who are getting by, we’re buying ground beef," Kaufert told a local radio station. 

"That’s a small share of those folks. But also I’ve been at the convenience store many times, and the amount of nachos and soda that’s being purchased by kids with their parents’ EBT card, I think it’s time to say no to that."

In June, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg led a coalition of big city mayors asking Congress to restrict food stamps from paying for soda in the name of fighting obesity.

Junk food and crab legs aren't even the worst of it. "Every day we hear of reports of food stamps being used to pay for beer, cigarettes, cell phone bills, and even cars," Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said on the U.S. Senate floor in February. "That hardly needs to be mentioned because it is something we have come to understand,  there is a lot of misuse of tax dollars."

Federal law says food stamps can't be used to buy booze, cigarettes, vitamins, or household supplies. But they can buy almost anything else at a supermarket, so long as it isn't served hot for immediate consumption. So what do people buy with SNAP?

A government survey from the late-'90s found that meats accounted for 34.9 percent of food stamp purchases, grains 19.7 percent, fruits and veggies 19.6 percent, and dairy products 12.5 percent. Soft drinks made up 5.6 percent and sweets 2.5 percent.

If the government decides to restrict purchases to "wholesome" food, it won't be easy.

No clear standards exist for defining individual foods as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy,' and federal dietary guidance focuses on an overall dietary pattern that is, a total diet approach that promotes moderation and consumption of a variety of foods without singling out individual foods as 'good' or 'bad,' the Food Research and Action Center said in a January report.

But not even avoiding the most obvious junk food or extravagances will spare an EBT card carrier from cash register resentment. The reason is simple, the idea of someone purchasing so much as a pack of gum with money that they did not earn does not sit well with hard working Americans who earn each and every morsel of food that they consume are not concerned with the circumstances of someone who does not. Especially if they are able bodied, and they spend their "free money" on items they know that they could not afford otherwise.

As difficult as it may be, we must be careful not to judge others. Everybody has a story, and although the very connotation of the word story is that of a lie or an excuse. In an instant your life's tale can turn into an unbelievable narrative. One which would not have excused had you not found yourself in the valley.  


Side Bar: IRONY! Before I completed this piece I stood in line at the supermarket behind someone buying a bag of king crab legs, and guess what her payment of choice was......................👇


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