The Day I Qualified for Food Stamps
What do you know about SNAP?
Did you know that less than 75% of the working people who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) actually use it?
There’s a fair amount of debate in our country about taxes and social services. People throw around terms like, “welfare queens” and “working poor.” Some advocate for better programs to aid those in need, others seem terrified that their hard-earned money will end up paying for someone to just loaf around.
In reality there are millions of people who qualify for assistance but don't even access it. Why not? Is it lack of education about available programs, or could it be the social stigma of accepting a "government handout?"
I was one of those millions of people who qualified for SNAP but wasn't using it, even though I desperately needed to! Here is the story of how that changed, and what I have learned from the journey.
The Nitty Gritty
The U.S. provides a lot of different programs to people in need. I decided to highlight SNAP because it's a pretty basic concept to understand and I have personal experience with it. It also used to be called "food stamps," and you might be more familiar with that name.
Through SNAP, families that live at or under 130% of the Federal Poverty Level can buy food at their local grocery stores. SNAP benefits can only be used to buy food to be prepared at home (it won't work at restaurants or fast food joints) and can only be used at retailers that have been approved to be a part of the program.
To evaluate whether or not you qualify, and how much your benefit will be, you submit information about your income and what bills you are required to pay every month. It is then calculated how much money you would need to buy enough nutritious food for those in your household. If the amount leftover from your income is not enough, SNAP makes up the difference.
How I found my way to SNAP
My husband and I met a few years ago, two Americans in Egypt. We were both enterprising young people who had decided to live and work overseas. We both loved the adventure of being in a new place and the challenge of adapting to a new culture. These shared interests were part of what brought us together.
As our relationship progressed, so did our job situations. We navigated much of our courtship across the time zones of West Virginia and Istanbul. We stayed up late into the night talking on Skype and falling in love. It was a blissful time, but also came with a harsh reality: at least one of us would need to relocate.
Not so happily ever after
We settled in the U.S. with our eyes still looking across the ocean. We found a new job opportunity in a foreign country where we could begin a new adventure together. First, though, were the details of our wedding, directly on the heels of my move from Europe. New complications arose, and we knew we would need to stay stateside a little longer.
New complications arose, and we knew we would need to stay stateside a little longer.
At this point we had invested much of our time in preparing for our future plans, leaving little opportunity for a traditional job, especially a position we would have to quit within a year. My husband’s substitute teaching was the income stream we were depending on, and the approval process took far more time than we had expected. We were able to find some short-term work, but a couple of months into our marriage we realized our savings were suffering and we had no guarantee of other income for the rest of the year.
A couple of months into our marriage we realized our savings were suffering and we had no guarantee of other income for the rest of the year.
Taking the plunge
When I applied for government assistance I wasn't sure I would qualify. We had made meager sums of money this year, but we both have bachelor’s degrees! I felt like we had created this problem ourselves and we could simply suffer the consequences or work our way out. I was driven to the online application when the grocery budget slowly receded and we ran out of money halfway through the month.
I filled it out, trying to be as honest and precise as possible. When I saw the estimate of what we might qualify for in benefits through SNAP my heart leapt. We could actually buy food items like meat and cheese again!
Two days later I got a call from our local office. The man on the phone verified my information and told me a letter would arrive the following week explaining what programs I had qualified for. I almost cried when he said we could expect our SNAP cards in 5-10 days.
I felt like we had created this problem ourselves and we could simply suffer the consequences or work our way out.
What I've learned
It turns out we're not that different from many people who qualify for SNAP. At least 40% of recipients live in a household with earnings. Only about 10% of recipients live in houses that receive cash benefits from the government. People using SNAP tend to buy the same kinds of food as people not using SNAP, and many of them are people out in the workforce; they're just not making enough to buy sufficient nutritional food.
As you can see from the graph above, the number of people using SNAP tends to echo the number of people living in poverty. Those people living between the lines are the ones who need help but aren't accessing it.
Though qualifying for this program will improve our quality of life, we intend to keep putting the frugality we’ve learned to good use. This isn’t an excuse to lose control of our spending and be wasteful, and I think a lot of SNAP beneficiaries would agree with me. Our small budget has taught us to be creative and take joy in simple things, two skills that can be amplified now, not done away with all together.
Our small budget has taught us to be creative and take joy in simple things.
I have also learned that it is okay to ask for help when you need it. This has, overall, been an incredibly humbling experience. It has been difficult to admit that we can’t make it on our own resources right now. Both my husband and I are high-achievers; I particularly struggle with perfectionism and fear of being inadequate. I had to make a choice between my pride and the stress of trying to manage our pitifully small budget. It's tragic to read the statistics and realize there are 10 million people living in the same stressful way my husband and I were, qualifying for SNAP but not taking part in it.
Believe me when I say that kind of lifestyle is very stressful. I have practiced living within a budget, but you can't budget what you don't have. There were times my husband and I would go grocery shopping knowing the six dollars in my wallet was all we had for the next two weeks. We began exclusively making our bread at home because we couldn’t afford the two dollars it would cost at the store.
A life I’ve never had to live
I can only imagine the stress of navigating this with children or sick family members, and that who most SNAP recipients are. My husband and I both have supportive families that provide an impeccable safety net. We have eaten countless meals at my in-laws’ table, and even if we couldn’t pay rent we wouldn’t be homeless. We have the privilege of using this system in an idealized manner: the government gives a short-term burst of support that helps its citizens bridge a difficult gap of time. We will soon no longer need these benefits and begin contributing to them instead through our taxes.
By the time someone is in this position, they are grappling with challenges and fears to which most people are completely oblivious.
It might not be forever
There are so many others who depend on these programs for a much longer time. I don’t begrudge them that position. These programs are designed so that they can be of aid during the most vulnerable moments of life. When income is low, when children are at risk of malnutrition, or when the elderly and disabled cannot afford groceries, SNAP is there to assist them.
This journey has made my heart softer to the people who benefit from social services, and looking at it critically so I can inform other people has taught me so much more than a knew before. By the time someone is in this position, they are grappling with challenges and fears to which most people are completely oblivious. It’s a difficult way to live, knowing that you can only survive because someone else is helping you.
What about you?
Have you ever applied for government assistance?
© 2017 Bethany Halbert