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


SabrinaT said...

I honestly believe to understand the working poor, you have to have been/or now be the working poor. I remember scraping coins to buy diapers. Ian and I still discuss the first 2 years we were married. Both working, yet still just making it by the skin of our teeth. Back then we ate tons of goulash (I think it has a fancy name, so you think it's gourmet). Sadly there are people that will never "get it"! Can I link this page to my blog?

Heather said...

Link away, and any future posts, whatever - mi casa su casa.. er, blog.

I think it's possible in theory to understand that income bracket without being/having been in it, however I've yet to find anyone who does otherwise. Having to play the Which Bill Do We Skip This Month game is a head-shaker for some, but is the reality for SO many people.

Ami said...

You put this so well. Perfect.
Too bad people who really need to GET it will never read it.

You forgot about creditors calling in the middle of all that. When I was expecting Lyssa, a guy called me and told me two ways to improve my financial situation.
1. Sell the television and send him the money
2. abort or give the baby up for adoption because, 'Deadbeats should not reproduce.'

I wish I knew then what I know now.

Heather said...

Ami, OMG the collection calls! I can't BELIEVE that asshole would say that to you. They are ruthless dicks, those collectors. I think you have to already be an asshole to do that job, because who else would take minimum wage to harass and insult people on the phone all day (and night)? And YOU are the deadbeat? Wow.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. and this is exactly why limiting welfare to only the poorest is bad policy. Because there is a HUGE disincentive to getting off welfare into a low-wage job. If you lump the loss of benefits in with taxes, the marginal tax rate for coming off benefits is bigger than what high-income earners are paying. The whole system is nuts.

Lisa said...

The whole welfare reform thing has always pissed me off. As you mentioned, if you have absolutely nothing and qualify for everything you can get by. If you are fortunate enough to live somewhere that has government housing that isn't a slum etc. etc. I got food stamps for a while years ago. It was PLENTY especially with WIC added. The downside is you have no $ for anything else. I use to buy my moms groceries too and keep her cash just so I could pay utilities, buy diapers. It's when you have a little and trying to dig out and then you don't qualify for squat, but you still don't have squat, you're just fucked. Ad welform reform crappola to it....well won't write a book on your comment thing but it pisses me off......

Hillary said...

My husband and I are trying to buy a house, and we're seeing all this. We make too much money for some of the really great assistance programs available in our county, but not enough money to necessarily be able to afford a mortgage AND food. We figured out what bills we can defer (student loans) and what things we can live without (cable TV). It'd be depressing except that it's a choice, which I know I'm extremely lucky to have. I could find a full-time job and stick my daughter into the public school. I could find a tiny house that wouldn't be such a stretch but that I may have to move out of in the long-run. I could not buy a house and just rent forever and ever. Lovely options, no?

MOM #1 said...

Oh, everything you're saying is so true true true.

I remember before I met Mom #2, Baby Boy and I struggled so much. He was just an infant and I couldn't even afford to buy baby food or even afford fresh fruits and vegetables to make baby food. I was feeding him squished up Ramen Noodles . . . it was a disaster. I was too proud to ask for help, but my Mom dropped by unexpectedly and caught me one day. Oh the horror!

Also I worked as a social worker in the welfare system here in Texas for over 10 years, before I decided to homeschool, and you see so many sad things. You want to take these families and give them a big hug and just start handing out the benefits, but the bureaucratic red tape is so long, thick and expansive, it's nearly impossible. And when they finally do navigate the system, the resulting benefit is so measly and has taken so long to actually receive, that the family has already (like they weren't already there) fallen into a crisis situation.

The working poor certainly are the most forgotten and most often misunderstood.

Everyone always has plenty of time to criticize the "welfare queens" that I guess someone heard about on TV, because I don't remember seeing any. Most people who have had to sit in the dark, cramped, demoralizing lobby of a welfare office are in desperate need of food, health care, shelter and clothing for their babies and have gotten to such a point that they don't care what it takes to get it.

Can you imagine how much pride some of us would have to swallow to sit beside them?

juliecache said...

thank you for posting this. i am now considering the challenge.

dawn said...

Very good post and I believe your friend is right about the working poor. We have acquaintances where the husband was in a serious work accident not his fault. He went on compensation and because of the brain injury can't get work doing what he was so is on AISH and I can't remember what it stands for. Because they were having trouble making ends meet at the beginning, she started a day home. Now, they seem to have more stuff than everyone else. They bought a new slightly bigger house, they have a new vehicle, new skis/snowboards, new expensive snow suit and it seems bigger and better stuff than we could afford. I am only slightly jealous ;-) but more amazed that they have so much living on social assistance.

People are surprised how little we spend on groceries at times but we are in a situation where we can raise a lot of our meat and now have eggs and we get milk from the farm too, so we really can't compare to other people's grocery bills.

I think the other thing is people don't think in amounts. You had some of the treats mentioned or good cuts of meat, but there are a lot of people out there who would have 3 pops a day, plus steak or roast every day, plus stop for the take out latte on the way to work, plus need a nice cheesecake for dessert and they can't make ends meet because they are not looking at those things as luxuries, but as everyday fair.
Again, good post.

KARLA and AMY said...

Good post Heather...

We invite everyone to track our progress as we are eating on just a buck a day for the month of January.

We are on Day 18 - using this as a social experiment and educational tool, but also as a fundraiser for my upcoming missions trip to Zambia; a country where living on a dollar a day is the norm.