A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

One family's experiment living on a food-stamp budget

Shrove Tuesday—On the Eve

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This is our family’s journey through Lent. We have tried giving up sweets, giving up meat, giving up seconds. It became a game. This year we want to live a little more deeply into hunger in America. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps was originally intended to provide food for those who cannot afford it. It is designed to alleviate hunger. But can it—is it really enough? During these 40 days of Lent, we will learn whether this family of four and live on the food provided by a SNAP budget.  But first some background…

The first Food Stamp program began in 1939 to provide nutritional help to Americans who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression.  The goal of this initial program was to link hungry people to farmers whose surpluses were sitting, unsold, in warehouses.  The program’s first administrator, Milo Perkins is purported to have said, “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other.  We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.”  This program was designed to be temporary support through hard time and sunset in 1943 when World War II had revived the American economy.

In 1961, it was clear that hunger still existed in America even with post-war prosperity.  A pilot program of food assistance through the department of Agriculture was announced.  The program cost $262 million over four years and reached about 20 million people.  The first recipient is reported to have live in Rochester, NY.

Following the success of this program, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 appropriated $75 million in food aid as part of a larger bill that enacted price supports for cotton and wheat.  The bill was strongly supported by urban and suburban Democrats who saw the results of hunger first hand.  Although opposed by many Republicans of the time, some from rural districts supported the bill because of the linked farm subsidies.  One of the food stamp program’s staunchest supporters, Senator Bob Dole, said of the act, “I am confident that this bill eliminates the greedy and feeds the needy.”  The program, now known as The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has experienced many expansions and contractions in the last 50 years but remains linked to the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bill.  It has also been joined by a variety of other legislation in other departments designed to provide food support to low income Americans, particularly those unable to work such as the elderly, children and the disabled.

Throughout its history, the program has been criticized for fraud.  In 2012, the USDA estimated that between 1% and 1.3% of food stamp dollars are trafficked by retailers who exchange vouchers for cash rather than food.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, the average SNAP benefit per person in New York State was about $110 per month according to data from the USDA.  In 2012 it was $147.45.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the US government gave SNAP participants a boost to their per-person allotment—about $36 per month for a family of four.  The idea was two-fold: First, more money in the pockets of the poorest Americans would be spent immediately back into the economy, stimulating recovery.  Second, with high unemployment and underemployment associated with the economic crisis, more people needed more help than ever before.  And let’s face it, food—along with shelter and clothing—are the front lines of help.  On 31 October 2013, this supplement expired.  The recovery should have been complete by this time, reasoned the legislators, so benefits fell back to adjusted prerecession levels.  For a family of four—like mine—in New York, the maximum SNAP benefit is $632 per month or $21.07 per day.  So that is what we’ll live on.

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