SNAP! NYT Food Stamp Feature is Long on Talk, Short on Guts
I was excited to see that Hannah had posted about the Sunday Times Article about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP née Food Stamps). Somebody needed to and I was relieved it wasn’t me. But reading her post only got me thinking more. So here’s more.
In the past three weeks, reports have pointed to the increasing rates of food insecurity and food stamp enrollment as clear signs of hardship. The stories of struggling American families personalize a growing problem and help bring it to life for New York Times readers. [Who, according to 30Rock's Jack Donaghy, need to be coddled like high-strung actresses] At the same time, these narratives overshadow what should have been a key point in the article.
We get seven paragraphs about Greg Dawson, father of five, and one about a study from the Washington University of St. Louis that found that 90% of black children will receive food stamps (i.e. live in a household receiving food stamps), at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. [Compared to 49% of all Americans, 37% of white children]. And that one paragraph is really just two sentences.
So let me say it again: the study reports that nine in ten black children are growing up in homes that not only qualify for food stamps, but also apply to receive them at some point. The study uses thirty years of longitudinal data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to construct life tables examining the extent to which specific events occur across intervals. In homes where a parent has not completed a high school education, 97% of black children, will have received food stamps by the time they are ten. Startling as these figures are, they may be underestimates. Not everyone who is eligible for SNAP benefits enrolls. Historically, participation among those eligible for food stamps has varied greatly state by state; in 2006 participation ranged from 50% (CA) to 98% (ME). Application requires time and ample documentation, including utility bills, pay stubs, rent or mortgage receipts and other records.
Film critic A.O Scott talks more about race and poverty in America in a short column discussing
“Precious” and “The Blind Side” than Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff dare in a lengthy front page feature about hunger. What does that say to you? DeParle and Gebeloff make the effort of analyzing county level statistics in the name of nuance but sidestep glaring disparities in food security and poverty. There is some discussion of chronic poverty in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and Native-American regions and reservations, but the authors are much more comfortable discussing the symbolism of pot roast.
Hopefully disparities will be addressed in a different article in the series on social safety nets. In the meantime let’s hear it from the film section: “But it is nonetheless possible – and, I think, useful – to imagine these movies in dialogue with each other, taking part in a conversation on race that the American public is always supposedly eager to have, but never right now.”
And we’re not going to have it here and now either. I feel under qualified.
Instead, I”ll keep playing Backseat Editor. The article missed a great opportunity to talk about some of the spillover benefits of food stamps. To acknowledge alternate viewpoints, the authors quote a representative from the conservative Heritage Foundation: “Food stamps is quasi money”. This is presented as a criticism and, coming from the Heritage Foundation, it’s probably meant that way. But it is a statement of fact. Food stamps are designed to act like a cash transfer. Food is a basic need and one that politicians can embrace. (Even W. got behind food stamps and a SNAPpy name change with the 2008 Farm Bill). Giving financial support in the form of food is more politically salient than offering money unconditionally and it ensures that the funds go to the purchase of food. Moreover, low income households tend to spend slightly more on food when given food stamps than if given the same value in cash. The Healthy Incentives Pilot program is trying to find ways to encourage increase purchases of fruits, vegetables, and healthful foods among SNAP participants. Receiving $130 a month in food stamps, the average benefit per household member, can free up money to spend on other goods-like utilities. It’s here that the authors needed to mention that putting money into the food stamp program was identified as one of the fastest ways to pump money into the economy. Money spent in supermarkets helps pay cashier salaries; contributes to demand for farm goods etc. and, where the supplement is sufficient to free up money for other uses, SNAP benefits can increase nonfood spending too.
Studies have estimated that for every dollar spent on food stamps, $1.50 to $2.00 is generated throughout the economy. This is called a multiplier effect. In other words, increasing food stamp spending helps stimulate the economy, potentially improving the livelihoods of most Americans, not just SNAP recipients. This argument was part of the rationale behind expanding SNAP by $20 billion, or 13%.
Food Stamp “Challenges”
When it comes to politicians’ and bloggers’ attempts to follow a typical food stamp budget for a stretch of time, my feelings are mixed. On one hand I can see this as an effective awareness building campaign that asks residents and readers to reflect upon the constraints that millions of Americans face when making everyday food choices. This can build humility and empathy.
But there’s an ickiness to framing these efforts as a “challenge”. Challenge implies competition; and, yes, feeding a family nutritious meals throughout its Oliver Twist dress rehearsal is a success. As Hannah argues, these efforts demonstrate that eating on the cheap need not equate with eating crap. I couldn’t agree more. I feel uncomfortable with the implication that low-income families struggling to eat healthfully are challenge ‘losers.’ Budgeting one’s food spending to match the average SNAP allotment is not the same as being poor. Poverty is not unidimensional. Done wrong, these ‘experiments’ come across like a reality show stunt. Getting Paris Hilton to tug a cow’s teat on the Simple Life is light years from handing her the deed to the farm.
I think Rebecca Blood is sensitive to the ways that she is different from the majority of Americans that participate in SNAP. I wish she had talked more about the time it took for her to prepare her meals.
Data from the American Time Use Survey show that low-income women that work full-time spend roughly 40 minutes a day in food preparation. With some conservative groups clamoring for food stamp reform that emphasizes employment, it’s important to consider time constraints of employed SNAP participants. Food Stamp benefits are based on the Thrifty Food Plan, a set of hypothetical lowest-cost market baskets made up of 29 food categories, on which the food stamp allotment is based. According to a study by the USDA Economic Research Service, the Thrifty Food Plan recipes, which focus on scratch-cooked, nutritious meals within a SNAP budget, take at least 80 minutes a day to follow, with an average of 2.3 hours a day. There is a big gap between assumptions and realities of time-use among the working poor. This needs to change.
photo by Chris Devers
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