Food stamp nation

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.”

4 Replies to “Food stamp nation”

  1. As a VISTA volunteer (the domestic volunteer agency that has morphed into Americorps) in the early 1990’s I received a $700/month stipend and food stamps. I had some savings from my prior private sector job and my parents were still around if things got really tight. So for eighteen months I used a fraction of my food stamp allotment. When I did use them I would travel over to the old P & C near the intersection of Burnet and Thompson Rd.–far enough away from my “home” stores in the Westcott area that I wouldn’t be noticed. I was struck with amazing middle-class guilt and stigmatized by my food stamp usage.

  2. This article was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” today; a woman calls in who uses food stamps, she is a check-out clerk at Walmart. So, is she pissed off that she is working hard, but still needs food stamps because her pay is so puny? Hell, no. She is angry that people use their food stamp allotment to buy junk food. As if that wasn’t most of what was available at Walmart to buy. Says the government should make more restrictions on what foods people can buy on the SNAP program. Sheesh. Walmart is the biggest food stamp program abuser there is, and yet, nobody makes that connection.

    Walmart, you should feel shame.

  3. You know, it’s funny, you bring back a memory with that. For some reason during this time, we bought more cookies than usual. Specifically, “grasshopper” cookies, which were like Oreos with mint green filling. I guess I was able to successfully convince my mother to use the extra money to buy cookies (since the coupons couldn’t be spent on “cat food and toilet paper,” which I always complained she bought too much of rather than the junk food I wanted – we only had 1 cat, so it’s not like she was buying too much of it – I was just being a whiner. “What do you need so much toilet paper for if you never buy any FOOD?” was a favorite whiny saying of mine.)

    Anyhow, my parents were probably uncomfortable about using the coupons, but I was sort of lovin’ those grasshopper cookies. :-) Except today, whenever I see them in the store, I associate them with “food stamp days” and don’t care to have them now!

  4. Well, if I could develop cookie aversions, I would ;-)

    Hey, but aren’t you glad we are avoiding the evils of a “government-run” health care system, and just moving directly to a “government-run” food system? Methinks it will involve much corn and soy…

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