Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Food and income...

A good while back, there was a big buzz around the messageboards I was frequenting and all over the internet about the Food Stamp Challenge. Even members of Congress have taken on the challenge, painstakingly planning and shopping for meals that will fit into their "food stamp budget". I've seen this done two ways; basing your monthly shopping on the maximum allowable food stamp benefit per household ($698/month for my family of 5), or a baseline $21 per family member per week (about $420/month for my family). Way back when we were on welfare and food stamps, our monthly food stamp benefit was about $540.

I was never quite sure if the idea was to shine a light on how very little the poor folks have to eat on, to make those in higher income brackets feel humbled and thankful, or to simply make people feel better about themselves. Whatever the reason, for most people, meeting the monthly food stamp goal seemed to be damn near to impossible. I am honestly extremely confused by the difficulty. We got food stamps for a little over three months, and had so much leftover money on our food stamp card that we used it for another two months after we stopped receiving benefits. I can't even imagine how long we could have gone on the maximum allowable amount. My normal grocery store budget per week is about $100 - and this is counting the extras you get at the grocery store, like shampoo and toilet paper. Sometimes I go a couple of dollars over, but well within the $21/week guidelines. If I didn't count the non-food items, our average monthly food expense is about $350.

I've seen and heard people complain while doing the food stamp challenge, that they had to stop buying the fun foods - prepackaged snacks, chips, soda, etc. When we were on food stamps, we always had those things. People mention giving up "good meat" and switching to low quality hamburger and pork. When we were on food stamps, we ate a few steaks and good quality roasts, and on Vic's birthday we even got a live lobster (!!!). I had to eventually just stop visiting the messageboards and other forums where people discussed this challenge, because I seriously wanted to ask, "What the fuck are you people eating?? Caviar??" To their credit, there were several people who were starting to figure out it wasn't so hard to live on that amount of money for food, but they still seemed to be missing the point.

Sometime last week I was discussing this with a friend, and I mentioned that I felt the Upper Middle and above to just be clueless about food and expenses in poorer households. "Of course they are," she said, "They're getting the wrong picture. They're only hearing about the maximum benefit." The maximum allowable food stamp benefit is based on absolutely NO income, and figuring in things like medical expenses caused by disability. The more money you earn, the less your food stamp benefit. According to this chart, the maximum monthly income for a family of 5 to qualify for ANY benefit is $2687, and that's only with other expenses figured in. Even then, you might only qualify for $40 per month in food stamps. In order to qualify for a food stamp benefit large enough to pay for all your food, even when you're super-thrifty, you'd have to have a much smaller income. The income requirements are a little higher for medical benefits, but only for the children in the home - the adults can apparently do without.

And that's the heart of the problem. Those on welfare and the maximum food stamp benefit are not really struggling. With no income, you can qualify for all kinds of things: housing assistance, food stamps, medical coverage, child care expenses, transportation, even education and job placement services. But the more money you make, the less help you qualify for. "The REAL challenge," said my friend, "Would be to see if they could live on just enough income not to qualify for anything. That's where the majority of 'poor' people are. They HAVE jobs and child care and housing, and can barely afford to eat. That's the working poor."

What if your total family income was just over the required amount to qualify for aid? What if you.. I dunno.. homeschooled or something (or were a single mother whose loser ex won't pay child support, or whatever), and had only one working parent in your 5-person household? What if you had to live on $2600 a month (gross, not net), with no disabilities or other deductions - too much to qualify for food stamps, housing assistance, or medical insurance? Could you pay your rent or mortgage? Property taxes or homeowners insurance? Could you buy health insurance for your entire family? Car insurance (required in most states), and/or a car payment? Clothing for your growing children? School expenses? Child care costs for the single parent? Put gas in your car to get to work, and eat lunch while you were there? Keep your lights and heat on? What about all the conveniences you're used to, like cell phones and internet access? And don't forget the unplanned expenses, like replacing a broken washing machine or a car repair, maybe a parking ticket or two. Could you eat on what was left? If something must be cut out in order to afford food, which necessity is the least necessary, or would make the most difference when it's eliminated? Do some quick figuring of monthly expenses for the average household, and you'll start getting a clearer picture of poverty than any $21 per week food budget could give you. Then it begins to make sense why there are so many people in this country without health insurance - the *possibility* of getting sick is much less than the *inevitability* of hunger.

For more information on struggling families and food benefits:
One Dollar Diet Project
Feeding America
St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance

On cutting your budget and managing less income:
Miserly Moms
Living on Less
The Dollar Stretcher