Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, hunger is nothing to laugh at. Yet those who find themselves in need of taxpayer-funded assistance to buy food—via what’s now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and more commonly known as food stamps—find there’s a stigma attached to doing so. You can see that for yourself if you Google something as simple as “food stamps” and watch as the hits start popping up for pages like a Facebook group titled “I work hard so lazy people can use food stamps to buy junk food.” That page has more than 2,000 “likes.” The presidential election, of course, saw Republican candidate Mitt Romney mock Americans who receive entitlements; his platform, economists estimated, would have seen food-stamp services cut by $1,300 to $1,800 per year for a family of four. Even the House Republicans’ latest compromise proposal to avoid triggering the fiscal cliff could cut food-stamp funding by millions.
As I suggested on this page two weeks ago, it’s worth understanding the issue from the inside before arguing an opinion about it. That’s why I decided to follow the recent example of several regional policy wonks, including Congressman Bob Brady, WHYY host Marty Moss-Coane and Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker and spend a week restricting my eating to what could be purchased on a food-stamp budget. In Pennsylvania, that’s $35 a week on average—$5 a day. Thirty-one percent of the city’s population is on that program: 473,037 people.
I’d seen reports that Booker suffered caffeine withdrawal during his challenge. Knowing full well that my own job performance is highly dependent on caffeine, the first thing I picked up was coffee. Cheap, rotten-smelling coffee. From there, I budgeted—rather poorly, as I later concluded—and came up with a highly wheat-concentrated diet of pasta, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mini-pizzas, oatmeal and bananas for good measure. I’m a vegetarian, which made the whole thing a bit easier. Or so I thought.
I detailed my experience day by day on PW’s PhillyNow blog. Almost immediately upon announcing my intentions, I received a horde of comments, tweets and emails about my choices. Why wasn’t I buying locally-sourced groceries? (Because, based on cursory advance research, I assumed it would be too expensive.) Why didn’t I buy more fruit? (Because, wow, compared to noodles and peanut butter, that shit is expensive.)
The first couple days weren’t so bad. Eating PB&J for lunch and pizza for dinner isn’t that far outside the norm for me. It was the between-meals eating—things like nuts, fruit, vegetables—that I immediately missed. And then I ran up against the issue that people who actually have to live on a poverty budget already know: Hunger and stress don’t mix too well.
See, it happens that, this same week, I was moving from my old apartment to a new place; I spent Friday night packing my belongings in cardboard boxes and Rubbermade totes, and I spent Saturday carrying boxes. (Not furniture. I had guys do the big stuff. But still: a lot of boxes.) Both Friday and Saturday nights, I ate America’s Choice pasta drenched in butter, and it left me with an extremely empty-feeling fullness. It was like I was still hungry, sure, but I didn’t want to eat. And my stomach screamed. After six full days of this diet, I found myself more irritable, tired and was finding it harder to focus.
My PW colleague Sheena Lester, who joined me in the challenge, did a little better than me; she was savvy enough to plan for repurposing her dinners as next-day lunches, too, often grinding the prior night’s sustenance into a salad. But that amount of discipline doesn’t just take willpower, she notes—it takes time. Time that someone would have to spend food-planning rather than, say, looking for work. “Mindless eating has never really been my thing,” she says, “but having to be so deliberate in my meal planning was nerve-wracking.” And she notes that the stress level would have been higher if she’d had to sustain her kids on the same budget: “Managing it if I had to feed my always-hungry vegetarian 15-year-old boys this way would really be nuts.”
That’s the point that’s often missed in the debate over public assistance: For those who depend upon food stamps for real, not just for a temporary stunt, that food budget does not represent an isolated, self-contained experience of poverty. While I’m eating for $5 a day, my house is not being foreclosed upon. I’m not trying to scrounge up cash to pay for electricity or gas. I have access to the Internet and a car. I spent cash throughout the week on movers, a trip to Target, a locksmith, gas and electricity.
And meanwhile, not all of the 473,037 Philadelphians on food stamps are even getting the full $35 a week. According to the Hunger Coalition, a portion of those who qualify for SNAP benefits get as little as a $16 per month supplement with which to feed themselves or their families. It’s a huge source of stress for those who are struggling with unemployment and underemployment throughout the recession—and their plight isn’t getting any easier under the Corbett administration, which recently made it more difficult for people to get food subsidies. On May 1, 2012, the governor imposed what’s called an “asset test” for those looking to collect SNAP: Most households with more than $5,500 in assets—like, you know, a savings account—will not qualify, low income notwithstanding. The message there, whether intentional or not, seems clear enough: Pennsylvania wants you to lift yourself up by your bootstraps—but only if you can do it all in one go. If you need to get there step by step, you’re on your own.