This Tuesday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) began a much-publicized "food stamp challenge," a project that involves living on less than $30 worth of groceries for a week. Since Booker started his challenge, we've been running letters from HuffPost readers who have themselves been on food stamps. Our readers have offered critiques and advice to Booker, and shared their own tales of struggle and success.
On Wednesday, we received a letter from "Margo," a reader in Kentucky who asked that we not use her real name. We've reproduced Margo's letter in full below. In it, she talks about going on food stamps with a law degree, getting "named and shamed" by cashiers at the grocery store, and how maximum-income limits -- the kind that trigger an automatic cutoff of aid as soon as you start earning a certain amount of money -- make it almost impossible for someone on food stamps to transition to self-sufficiency. "The only really 'safe' way out is to step immediately into a living-wage paying job with benefits," Margo writes, "and how many of those come along every day?"
For more information about Cory Booker's week on food stamps, you can read his tweets about his experience, and follow the conversation on Twitter under the tag #SNAPChallenge. If you have a food stamp experience you'd like to share, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband and I are highly educated people from middle-class families. I graduated from law school in Illinois in 2008, then moved to Kentucky for my husband to pursue his PhD. I passed the bar just in time for the financial crisis to take the bottom out of the economy, and in a state where I had no friends, family or school contacts, I searched for months to find a job, while lawyers with far more experience were being furloughed or let go. To make things more exciting in 2009, despite a longstanding diagnosis of infertility, I became unexpectedly pregnant. I had no insurance and we were barely making ends meet on a single grad student stipend, so with the help of the counselors at a crisis pregnancy center, we applied for government assistance.
The Medicaid program in Kentucky is streamlined for the benefit of pregnant women, since by definition they are on a strict time limit. I was able to obtain coverage with relative ease, which carried on through my six-week postpartum appointment. I also began receiving WIC benefits, the supplemental nutrition benefit for pregnant women, infants, and young children. WIC is a very strict program where it is a significant challenge to always buy the exact right items from the prescribed list, plus the quarterly qualification appointments are a challenge for those with small children and no available car. Still, it is relatively easy to qualify for and keep, plus the appointments include meetings with a nutritionist that are very helpful. Compared to food stamps and regular Medicaid, WIC is simple and streamlined.
The other program I qualified for was the SNAP program, the modern name for food stamps. We had to provide a large amount of documentation. Because my husband was a student and didn't get regular paychecks, we needed to provide special letters from his department about how much he made per week and how long his employment was set to last. We needed to provide information about all our assets, including everything we had in the bank. Social security information was required, plus a signed doctor's note about my pregnancy. At the end of all of this, our family of two and a half qualified for $150 a month in food stamp benefits and were issued an EBT card.
Shopping with the EBT card in Kentucky is... interesting. The purchasing process is relatively straightforward: scan your EBT card at the end of checkout, the machine takes off what is eligible and leaves you to pay any remaining balance. Because the card is bright and distinctive (red, white and blue stripes with the logo of the state on it), it's pretty easy for anyone near you to tell what you're paying with. At many stores, it's not really a big deal. Cashiers are kind and treat you like anybody else. Other times, you can feel the people around you staring at your purchases, judging whether your purchases are worthy. I stopped going to one store in my town because the cashiers seemed to go out of their way to name and shame people in line using WIC or SNAP. I began to shop late at night to avoid lines and crowds. When I received a Starbucks gift card as a gift from my mother-in-law, I felt too exposed to use it at the kiosk in the store, for fear that I would be pegged as some kind of welfare leech, buying expensive beverages and buying food with benefits. I think that for me personally, the sensation was intensified because my extended family is conservative and Republican, and before my own entry into the system, my sole exposure to food stamps was hearing derisive stories about people seen in stores buying steaks and other "rich" foods with food stamp benefits.
$150 per month in benefits wasn't much money, but I was luckier than many people on food stamps. I had the time, energy and computer/printer capability to coupon extensively, stretching my grocery dollar by more than 50% for many packaged and canned items. Produce and fresh meat were hard to come by, but the money was still a great help. We continued on the food stamp program for six months, when shortly after my son's birth, my husband took on work as an adjunct professor at another local school in order to gain teaching experience. Adjunct work pays very little, and much of the $300 per month was eaten by paying for the long commute. Even so, it was income that had to be reported. That money was enough to push us just over the limit for income, so our benefits were cut off. Even without that income, though, we'd have had a hard time continuing to qualify. In order to maintain food stamp eligibility, not only must you have very little income, you must have next to no assets. Having $2000 in the bank will disqualify you from any benefits. By trying to establish a small emergency fund from our tax refund and putting some of our baby gifts into a bank account for our son, simply having a month's worth of rent in the checking account was enough to put us over the limit. We could've spent down, of course, ensured we had no assets, but we made the choice to try and build some savings and simply tighten our belts even further.
I think the takeaway lesson I found in my experience with government assistance is how hard it is to get on, and how hard it is to get off. I have a lot of experience with paperwork and bureaucracy, and even I found it a daunting task to get benefits and hold onto them through requalifications, due to changes in address and income. Every time we did anything to earn money, we had to consider whether it would be a catastrophic net loss. Food stamps are not as big a thing, but losing our son's medical card would've been disastrous, for instance, since we had no outside insurance and couldn't afford to buy independently. Saving money was discouraged, if saving money was possible at all. I thought about taking a part time job, but something that didn't pay benefits, even if it would cover babysitting, would push us over income limits for insurance. There is no weaning from the system. The moment you take a step up the ladder, the net is pulled out from under you and you're on your own. The only really "safe" way out is to step immediately into a living-wage paying job with benefits, and how many of those come along every day? There is a strong argument to be made that if you are responsible for a family, it is logical and responsible to do everything you can to stay on benefits. The system is so eager to keep those who aren't in greatest need from unjust enrichment that it cuts off people from being able to better themselves.