Tag Archives: poverty

We All Live On Food Stamps

17 Jul

Last week’s Congressional proposal to significantly cut the food stamps program has upped the volume on the debate over the role of government in ending hunger in America. Sadly, while there is much to talk about, most of what’s being said on the issue by politicians is, frankly, dumb, and overlooks the broad, society-wide implications of cutting food stamps.

Among the most idiotic of rants against the program came from Arizona GOP Congressional candidate Gabriela Saucedo Mercer who posted the following on her Facebook page:

Can I get a WTF?

But since Saucedo Mercer is just a candidate, I went looking to see what office holders are saying and found this choice quote from Congressman Rand Paul (R-KY) –

“…we’re now asking to spend $750 billion on food stamps…When we ask this, we need to remember that recently a woman in Chicago faked the birth of triplets in order to receive $21,000 in food stamps.”

“We need to remember that millionaires, including Larry Ficke, who won $2 million, are still receiving food stamps because he says he has got no income. He has got $2 million but no income.”

“It’s out of control. It’s not about helping those in need. It’s about being wise with the taxpayer dollars and not giving people $20,000 a year in food stamps.”

Yup. That’s right. Shades of Ronald Reagan’s Chicago welfare queen.

For the sake of full disclosure, I was once a recipient of food stamps. To add to my already biased perspective as a former recipient, I was also once a food stamps eligibility worker. I am a fan of food stamps. And, I also know a thing or two about the program.

I went online and to a SNAP office to get an update. Here’s what I learned –

About 45 million people receive food stamps. That’s about 14% of the American population. For 6 million Americans, food stamps is their only income. 55% of food stamp households include children. 14% include a disabled member. 9% include someone over the age of 60.

The long and short of it is that food stamps go to the most vulnerable sectors of our population.

It’s estimated that about 1% of food stamps are illegally trafficked. That’s a ratio of 1 dollar trafficked for every 99 spent feeding the hungry.

Given the vulnerability of food stamps recipients (especially children who suffer rather than benefit when food stamps are trafficked), you’d think Congress would address food stamp fraud as a 1% problem rather than propose punishing everyone without any plan b for addressing starvation.

But ridiculousness seems to be the rule rather than the exception in the fight over food stamps. For instance, in order to receive Rand Paul’s “$20,000 a year” in assistance, a family in New York has to have 14 members. Why bother getting a job if you can have 12 kids in order to make to make $119 of food stamps a month per family member, right?

And what are the implications of all this bull that’s being slung by political leaders?

The largest group (about 41%) of people on food stamps is white. That’s about 8% of white folks in the U.S. Meanwhile, a quarter of food stamp households is headed by African Americans. That’s about 9 million people in a community suffering from a 14.4% unemployment rate. Cuts to Food Stamps will hurt poor people in general, for sure, especially those who live in rural areas where food stamps helps to buoy the diversity of foods available at markets. But cuts to food stamps will have catastrophic implications for African Americans in particular who have been living in depression conditions since before the economic crisis.

Yet to hear folks talk about it, you would think that the people most affected by food stamps are business owners and white middle class voters.

So, all long as that’s fodder for debate, let’s be clear. Those folks are also affected. In general, about 10% of groceries in the U.S. are purchased with food stamps. That’s a big deal to farmers and grocers who rely on that income to stay in the game.

And for poor communities, the stimulative impact is magnified. Where I grew up, between 25 and 50% of grocers’ incomes came from food stamps. Those stores would go out of business without the program, costing jobs and worsening the already serious problem of food insecurity in poor communities.

Moreover, given how low the minimum wage is, and how dependent many businesses are on temporary and part-time workers, food stamps ends up being a subsidy to business. How else are workers supposed to be able to make it on low wage jobs if not for government food assistance?

Given this reality, painting food stamp recipients as undeserving (or even as annoying wildlife) may be good for the political prospects of conservatives, but it’s bad for the rest of us.

Time to speak up. We all live on food stamps.

Blinkered By Race

28 Jun

No, I don’t mean car blinkers. I’m referring to the kind of blinkers that are used to keep race horses looking straight ahead at the jockey’s goal while blinding them to the distractions on either side.

Racism blinkers us. It imposes a kind of tunnel vision, causing social problems to appear to be related to differences in race and culture (and not racism), while blinding us to the common roots of many of our problems.

The study conducted by the Pew Research Center on Asian Americans that I wrote about in my last post is a good example. In it, Pew reports that 49% of Asian American adults have college degrees compared with 28% of adults in general. In addition, Asian Americans are reported to have substantially higher median household incomes and wealth than the general population, and then describes the relatively high levels of education and financial success of Asian Americans as distinctive racial characteristics.

There are significant problems with Pew’s number crunching you can read about in an excellent article in COLORLINES. But even if we put those problems aside, there’s still the issue of how ascribing relative Asian American success to race blinds us to the real social and economic realities dictating these outcomes, and how those realities affect everyone.

Here’s what I mean. In surveys measuring the educational levels of the most highly industrialized nations, the U.S. is scored at about average. That’s pretty bad news for the nation that is the richest by far, and the former world leader in education. It is for this reason that visas must be fast tracked for certain highly skilled workers, resulting in skewed educational attainment statistics among some immigrant groups, including some of the most educationally privileged of Asian immigrants.

And on that question of higher incomes and household wealth among Asians. Is it more useful to study these indices of success as racial characteristics, or to ask ourselves why the median income for Americans in general is so low?

According to Peter Edelman, 20 million Americans earned incomes less than $9,000 a year. Six million Americans have only food stamps as income. Half of U.S. jobs pay less than $34,000 a year. A fourth pay less than the poverty rate for a family of four. These statistics bring down the median income of Americans, even as that median obscures the reality for those on the bottom of the U.S. economy.

The poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately people of color, and that’s all about racism. Racism is also at work when we allow negative racial stereotypes to lead us to blame people of color for the problem of persistent poverty. But looking for solutions to poverty in racial or cultural characteristics, as the model minority myth that is tacitly promoted by the Pew report leads us to do, takes us nowhere.

Whites in the U.S. have the highest per capita incomes. With the blinkers on, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that white privilege translates into direct financial benefits for all white people. But then, how do we explain the fact that whites also constitute the majority of those who are poor?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO of major companies in the U.S. earns in 10 hours what a typical worker earns in an entire year. So maybe the explanation is that income and wealth is not evenly distributed among whites – that the real driver of poverty is how the rich value the labor of the rest of us, regardless of race.

But it’s tough to know the nature of things we refuse to see. Among those things we’re blinded to by racism are our common humanity, our shared problems, and our linked destinies. Time to take off the blinkers. If we don’t, we might find that we’re racing to nowhere while the answers to where we ought to be heading lie in joining forces with our perceived opponents on either side.

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