I’ve Lived on Food Stamps – and Couldn’t Wait To Get Off

Last year, I collected food $148 in food stamps each month. It’s the worst “free money” I’ve ever earned, and I’m happy to say that I’m no longer able to get these benefits.

I’ve read a lot of posts about government assistance lately, and it’s always a hot-button topic (and especially in election years). It’s likely that many of these people writing about programs like welfare, food stamps (now called SNAP), and others have never enrolled or received benefits, and I do have to take their opinions with that in mind.

Why We Need Food Stamps

I’m not going to speak to all government programs, but I do think that it’s important to have some level of the food stamp program. While many of the people receiving them probably aren’t in a life-or-death situation when it comes to getting this assistance, it’s probably not too far off, either. According to FeedingAmerica.org, “In 2010, 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 32.6 million adults and 16.2 million children.” It’s scary to consider that almost 1 in 6 Americans fall into this category.

Hunger clearly continues to be a problem here, and presumably food stamps help alleviate this problem to some degree.

The Program Isn’t Perfect

One issue I have with SNAP/food stamps is that eligibility is based most on income and not on wealth and assets. I’m not sure if this is true in all states, but in Connecticut if you make under a certain amount per month (somewhere around $1,300), you’re not required to disclose any of your assets. What you own isn’t count against the assistance you receive.

This essentially means that millionaires can collect food stamps as long as their present income is below a certain limit. Myself and others collecting foodstamps were really bothered by this fact, and it really didn’t make sense as to why this loophole was allowed to stay open.

Another thing I have mixed feelings on is that in Connecticut you can buy virtually any food you want with food stamps. While I think everyone should have access to healthy foods rather than processed junk, I’m not sure that someone should be allowed to purchase organic or luxury foods with food stamps. I’ve seen people doing this a few times at my local Co-Op, and it just makes me wonder if they really need the food stamps since there’s no way that they’re going to be able to afford enough food with their food stamp assistance at the prices they’re paying.

Getting Off Food Stamps

One of the major criticisms that I hear about these government programs is that people may just stay on them forever instead of trying to increase their income or do something else to get their presently bad situation. That’s a valid question, but it’s one that I have a hard time understanding myself.

To me, simply earning more was enough of an incentive to get off foods stamps. Sure, I had plenty of food to eat, but I had barely enough money for anything else as it was since I was earning so little money. I couldn’t save any money for the future, I couldn’t afford to go on trips with my income, and I really couldn’t buy anything extra (which prompted me to have a “No Spend” month last February).

I imagine my ability and decision to get out of this lifestyle was a lot easier than it was for others. I had a clear path to a better-paying job. Everyone around me was earning more than me. But I’m doubtful it’s that easy for others, and that’s evidenced in unemployment stats based on education.

No One Can Truly Live on Food Stamps

Unlike other government programs, it’s impossible to live on food stamps alone. You aren’t actually given money, which makes it difficult to cheat the system and buy anything other than food. Plus, it’s only enough to barely buy enough groceries. In that sense I feel like it’s hard to say that people really are abusing the program and that it’s not serving its purpose.

I hope I never have to go back to living on food stamps. To me, getting government assistance like this means that I’m in a pretty bad place financially, and I’d never choose that over working hard and earning enough money to pay for my own food.

What are your feelings on food stamps?

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photo by: eschipul

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Comments

  1. This is a really interesting perspective to me as I have never read anything from someone who actually used these services. Clearly you benefited from them and were able to work your way out of the situation. But is that the norm or is the alternative of staying on them for life more likely?

    That’s also really silly that they don’t take assets into account…

    • @Dollar Disciple I’m not sure what the norm is. It’s something I’m interested in figuring out since that seems to be one of the main gripes with programs like this. A quick Google search didn’t turn up anything clearly saying one way or another, but I’ll do some deeper research.

  2. “You aren’t actually given money, which makes it difficult to cheat the system and buy anything other than food.” I’ve done a fair amount of reading on welfare programs in general, and (as you might imagine) administration is sort of a mess. At one point Milton Friedman suggested replacing welfare programs with one single transfer payment. He estimated that the administrative burden was around 2/3 of the program – and this was in the 60s and 70s. Replacing welfare programs with a negative income tax would cost a lot less to run, however I feel that a lot of people would be against it due to the freedom that it would bring.

    Currently, governments run welfare programs for health, food, heating/air conditioning, housing, and many other individual things. A NIT would allow an enrollee to choose how best to spend their own funds, which seems to me a more fair system (not to mention a system which allows more pride) than a system where government picks the categories of spending.

    • @PKamp3 Interesting point, PK. That’s a really expensive program to run if that’s the case. Those are a lot of great points, although I haven’t heard a whole lot of discussion about a NIT. Not saying it’s good or bad, but it seems like something that would take a lot of work and convincing to ever become a reality.

  3. Wow, that’s a pretty tight restriction, maybe too much so. What if you simply own a car? I think it’s kinda silly that you’d have to potentially cash out all assets down to $3,000 to qualify.

  4. Agreed. There’s really no good economic argument against preventing hunger.

  5. Jeff, thank you for sharing your perspective. How long were you on food stamps for, and do your parents know? I’d think they’d help out no?

    Shot you an e-mail Sunday night. You get it? Sam

    • @YakezieI was on food stamps for almost a year. It was a bit of a conscious choice while doing AmeriCorps. I was still making enough income to get by with my stipend (although not by a lot), and I had some cash savings to fall back on, too. No worries, I was never at risk of starving or being homeless. Because of that, I didn’t ask for help from anyone, and I enjoyed the challenge to some degree.

      Yes, I did get the email! I’m very pleased! I believe I replied back but let me know if you didn’t get my reply.

      •  @Jeffrey Trull Do you know if one can get food stamps while getting unemployment?  Also, what is the income limit you think?  S

        •  @Yakezie I bet it’s possible, but I can’t say I know personally know someone that’s attempted it.
           
          I’m guessing the income limit is around $1,500 a month for one person, but there are several variables and it depends on the state you’re in, so don’t quote me on that. Tools like this are easy and helpful to see if you’re close: http://www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns/

  6. Great post! I have a few thoughts on this, as I just looked into this program for our family when I became unemployed. In Hawaii, there is an asset test ($3k in assets or less for a family of 3) you have to pass in order to qualify for welfare like food stamps. The only reason I qualify for state health is because I am pregnant and my son is a minor. If those weren’t the case, I would be shelling out $800 a month for healthcare for the two of us.

    The one thing I do disagree with you about is the use of food stamps for organic food. When it comes down to it, getting organic milk for my son is extremely important for me because he is 19 months old. When a child is that young, if it is possible to get milk that is free of hormones it is, to me, one of our higher priorities. It’s just that their bodies are so fragile and while he’s so young, we want him to be as hormone and pesticide free as possible.

    Apart from that, if you’re talking millionaires who are on food stamps and getting their organic truffle oil, well then, perhaps a touch of reality would be good for them.

    • @simple island living Thanks for you comments on this. In regards to organic foods, I would argue that those on food stamps should just purchase that with their own money. I’m not sure of the philosophy of the program, but I think it makes sense to still expect people to spend some of their own money on food like organic milk. If you tried to buy all organic foods, you wouldn’t have enough money coming from food stamps each month to feed yourself anyway.

  7. I have experience with both Pennsylvania and New York State. I remember when you had to list items such as your car and anything you could sell. So many people got upset over this because you had to give up everything just to get help that the laws finally changed. New York currently has limits set so low that your GROSS income has to be under $600 per month. Who the hell can live on that? I very much remember having a part-time job (30 hours) and being $80 over in gross wages for assistance in NY.

    Now, while I do agree that people should be seeking a way out, saving for that way or finding the income isn’t always that close to reality. In the area I currently live in, rent has shot up between two and three times what it was last year when they discovered natural gas in the hills around us. Now no one can afford rent but the gas drillers and those lucky enough to find work with them. The economic downturn nationwide caused lots of problems which cannot be addressed individually. So, the need for the program is still there.

    The problem is in the antiquated solution of “go find a job that pays more”. Or the old theory of “just move to a better area”. The solution, and the system, are also becoming quickly outdated. You honestly have to be in line at the one church where free food is given away each month to understand the need. I’m not sure if the people gave up or the system gave up on the people.

    • @Bill Swan Thanks for your insights, Bill. It sounds like the area you’re living in is going through some challenging times, and it’s always hard to figure out what the answers are for aid in these situations.

  8. I think basing eligibility just on income isn’t right. But would I want to get rid of the program? No. Something is better than nothing. A reform would be welcome though.

  9. As an Americorps member, I found that receiving food stamps as part of the compensation was kind of weird. I was employed, and I was doing good work for the community, but people still look down on anyone who receives government assistance. I had to work on my own pride, too. And then I found that the monthly benefit I qualified for was almost twice what I needed to feed myself (in an expensive area). How can others barely be getting by? And how is it fair when people who make only slightly more than I do, do not qualify for enough in assistance to buy their groceries? They still need food!

    • Good points, although I can’t say I felt the same way about it that you do. I had no pride issues with accepting food stamps, and I really didn’t care if anyone looked down at me for accepting them, either. And yes, they do give you a good amount of assistance, but, if you have reservations about that, you don’t have to accept or use it all. I can’t say I experienced others not being able to receive food stamps in my area.

    • SameBoat InConnecticut says:

      I’ve found that in Connecticut, the more money you earn, the less you take home. For example, working part time, I was able to apply for welfare programs that paid 90% of my daycare. I brought home a net of 340.00/week. When my income jumped to a net of $540/week, I was offered no help because I made over the limit (and I’m a single mother without child support). After daycare costs, I netted 290/week because I an hour commute. It benefited me more to work only 30 hours given the choice. These are decisions that people in poverty are forced to make everyday. My sister, age 30, and her husband, 36, have no children because they fear the cost of daycare. If more people qualified for help based on other variables outside of income and assets, things would make more sense. Between gas, daycare and health insurance (since after acquiring the full time job we no longer qualified for state medical) I made absolutely NO profit by working 10 extra hours a week with 10 additional hours in transit. As a matter of fact, I LOST a significant amount of my income compared to working part time. What is wrong with that picture?

  10. My two problems with food stamp programs are 1. There is little done in the way of verification.  I’ve known several people on it, and all you bring is your ID, paycheck, and a bank statement.  In my state you have to be below a certain income based upon your family size and you have to have less than $X in your bank account.  And, 2.  The verification was on the honor system.  They did not check to see if you had more than one bank account.  For instance, you could have a checking account with little money in it and use that when you apply for food stamps, when in reality you have another checking account that you have your money in, but the food stamp office would never know about it.

  11. Chris M says:

    Me and my wife both worked all of our lives and as a matter of fact I am a 2 time combat vet with 13 years in service I have only been offered temporary/contract  jobs since leaving we are vegetarian and organic eaters before she lost her job at the hospital and has only been offered temp work. As such we were forced into food stamps but think about this the local co-op is 1) Pesticide and hormone free which is perferable for us to put in our bodies.  2) You support the local economy instead of the global economy which actually makes more jobs.  3) Why should I be forced into eating processed foods which are known to cause high blood pressure, heart disease, as well as a slew of other health problems.  4) Our food stamps last us a whole month with out going into our personal fianace as long as you shop carefully so maybe we can teach you to shop.

  12. Jeff,
     
    In 2011, I graduated from college in the top ten percent of my class while working two, sometimes three jobs to support myself. I worked my tail off to do well in school while making ends meet with food service, work study, and scholarship jobs because I thought that at the end of my collegiate journey there would be a world of job opportunities that offered luxuries such as health care and paid sick days.
     
    It’s August of 2012, and I work two entry-level food service jobs with no benefits whatsoever. “Just get a better job.” Since February, I’ve applied to over 200 jobs of all shapes and sizes, been on approximately 25 interviews, and am back to where I started: doing jobs I could have done without even a GED. “Well, just move.” Moving costs money. Lots of money. Money I, like many others in this country and around the world, don’t have.
     
    My fiance and I receive SNAP benefits because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t eat. I also receive women’s Medicaid which entitles me to one yearly visit to an approved Ob-Gyn. I was hesitant to apply for both of these programs, not for pride, but because I felt like we didn’t deserve them; that there are families and elderly people who need it more and I’d literally be taking food out of their mouths.
     
    With the exception of my beater car and very expensive musical instrument (which is now in pawn and something that I used to make extra money), I have no assets. I’d sell the car, but I still owe money on it and I’m a delivery driver. I have a cell phone that requires phone cards, so when I have the money I purchase minutes for it, but most of the time I find a payphone. I don’t have a computer or internet, so I go to the library to find jobs, work on my resume, and check my e-mail. Sometimes my power, water, or gas get shut off. I live with it until I can scrounge up the money to pay the bill.
     
    What am I getting at with this? The $100 per month that I receive to feed both my fiance and myself is $100 we can be putting toward bills, debts, and, dare I say, savings. No matter what the program, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, unemployment–there will be abuses of the system, but everything depends on the individual. Being as that I’ve lived in poverty my whole life, been homeless twice, and work constantly alongside people who are in the same financial boat, I’ve found that more often than not, these people want a way out.
     
    The “hand-up” versus “hand-out” philosophy. Well, there are few opportunities for a hand-up at this point in time, so those of us who struggle, work constantly at thankless, demanding, and wholly unsubstantial jobs, we need anything and everything to help us stay afloat.

  13. Organic food is NOT a luxury.  GMO foods are pesticide and chemical laden…it is proven this causes cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a host of other serious chronic illnesses.  I’m allergic to eating anything that has chemicals in it, and get seriously ill if I eat GMOs(which is in all conventional produce and boxed foods, corn, wheat, soy), I’m also gluten intolerant. Therefore, by your ridiculous comment, I should just starve.  Educate yourself, before rambling about Organic food.  Why do you think California is trying so desperately to pass Prop 37.   Conventional food IS Poison.

    • Quite the contrary; I am just like you & have a total intolerance for anything artificial including chemicals touted as “Safe” by the FDA such as Red #40, Yellow #5, Lake #6, Propylene Glycol TBHQ & certainly GMO’s. My point was that growing your own food is not worth the work & I personally would rather dumpster dive, steal or die than exert that arduous effort toiling in a garden.
       
      Begbucks

  14. Tiffanyxonlyx1 says:

    I’m a 29 yr old single mother who receives food stamps and medical assistance for me and my 6yr old son . Yes it is a whole lot of help , espeacialy the medical , i can not afford to lose my medical at all but i have a very big problem food stamps and medical dont pay for my rent and other bills . does any one know how it works when you receive these assistance if your able to work ? and is there a certain amount of hours allowed to work ? if any one knows please comment me back . thanks alot .

  15. SameBoat InConnecticut says:

    I feel as though I wrote the foregoing myself. I am a college graduate with honors (3.94 GPA), pre-law and live exactly as you do. The only difference is that I have a child and I am raising her alone – which makes things even harder.

  16. Sick of scammers says:

    I know two woman that live in Wauconda Washington that cheat the hell out of the system.  They have snowmobiles, ATV’s and nice trucks.  They live rent free on a relatives property and claim they pay rent, so they get cash as well.  They have made a career out of getting sympathy from people and getting other things for free.  One of them is also on disability and rides both the snowmobile and the ATV.  In addition to that they conned an elderly neighbor and my best friend out of thousands upon thousands of dollars which, of course they don’t claim.  I want so much to turn this hillbilly trash in to someone and hope they go to jail!  Should I turn them in?

    • thedemonmuncher says:

      @Sick of scammers Yes!  I am a 1.5 generation immigrant (I was born in a foreign country but came here very early), and I can say this: if you are not a source of creativity and productivity to your country/community/family, than you have no point in your existence.  They’re are conning the government and all those around them.  Maybe one filed form, one phone call can change the tide of enabling.  It might start an investigation by the State, then that will trigger an audit by the IRS, and soon they’re being sued by the Justice Dept. for fraud.  Someone needs to start the ball rolling.

  17. I think that rather than banning organic foods, they should ban junk foods. We buy little to no junk food and we spend a lot less than most Americans do on food. Healthy food costs less in most places in America. Especially here in the West. There are lots of places to buy cheap, whole foods. Produce is the bulk of our groceries and I can say that it costs a lot less. My parents spend twice as much on food and get half as much as we do. They are always buying meat and other junk.

  18. I live in California.  I had a tenant that has $200,000 and new Camry in assets and refused to look for a job.  He was able to get and receive Food Stamps.  Although he had the money to pay rent, he refused to do so.  As I was getting ready to evict him, he left without telling me and has not forwarding address.  The guy in 52 years old and has a Masters’ degree. I’m just amazed at how a guy can have that much in cash assets and still get food stamps.  In my opinion, this is completely wrong and a clear abuse of the purpose of food stamps.  I feel the money he gets should be spent on a person who is trying their best to get a job.

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