The New York Times has an article on increased food stamp use in America that delivers the staggering statistic that up to one-fourth of America’s children are currently being helped by the program. Food stamps mean different things to different people – for some, it’s something they chronically need to rely on, and for others it’s a temporary situation. In the early ’80s (the last big recession), my family used food stamps when my dad was out of work. I can’t remember exactly how long, but I think it was a couple of months. We weren’t starving, but we did qualify for the program, so my parents used it for a while. So what’s it like when a suburban family has to endure the “shame” of using a good government program they’ve already paid into? This was back in the days before they used a discreet swipe card for the benefits, and used colored coupons instead, and I remember the whiff of stigma over whipping those things out at the local grocery store. For whatever reason, we went to another nearby Wegmans quite a lot during that period (which my sister called “the food stamp Wegmans”).
Well, it was tough enough for my parents as voting Democrats to rely on them for a little while — imagine how tough it is for government-scorning Republican parents to swallow their pride, use the cards, and then go right back to cursing government programs once they get back on their feet. Cognitive dissonance requires a lot of effort to maintain.
The Times story breaks down statistics county-by-county. If the need for (and not the actual use of) the food stamp program is embarrassing, Onondaga County has the dubious distinction of being the county where the highest percentage of black residents are using the program. The ratio of black to white food stamp recipients (percentagewise) also seems to be most imbalanced here, and in Rochester. The total percentage of food stamp recipients (of any race or age) has gone up 33% in Onondaga County over the past two years. That isn’t as bad as some counties and boroughs downstate, but compared with the other major upstate metro areas, it’s a significantly greater change than in Rochester and Buffalo.
The article notes that food stamp usage in better-off “white” communities (like suburban Atlanta) is soaring. Twenty years from now, other middle-class Americans will be confessing this family secret and recalling “food stamp days.”