SNAP Judgments (Guest Blogger)

Posted by on February 22nd, 2011

Food Stamp Line taken by AP Photographer David Mercer

Today nearly one in five Philadelphians will rely on SNAP benefits to feed themselves, and I will be one of them. SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was formerly known as food stamps and although the name has changed, many of the stereotypes of the program and its participants remain.  I’ve heard stories about how SNAP recipients are lazy, make poor food choices, and abuse the system. Many of these assumptions are broad generalizations, but they also touch on issues of food choice and access that are too complex to cover in blog form. The one story I can share to shed light on the misunderstood SNAP recipient is my own.

As an AmeriCorps*VISTA I committed to working with Philabundance for a year earning a stipend from AmeriCorps set at the poverty line.  Since SNAP’s income eligibility is set at 160% of the poverty line, it meant I was eligible. To be eligible, a single person household must earn less than $1,444. For a four person household, that translates to $2,941 per month. In other words, not much.
Applying for food stamps isn’t as simple as buying stamps at a post office. I can’t just walk into a welfare office, tell them I’m in need, and walk away with an EBT card. Instead, unless a household is in an emergency situation, the process can span months. I started in August by going online to fill out the initial application. Don’t have a computer? Then you have to go to your local County Assistance Office to pick up the 24 page application. Work? (Like 37.50% of households receiving SNAP in Philadelphia do) Then you have to make time during business hours to visit the assistance office, which is often easier said than done.

After submitting the initial application, you then have to supply documents to support your application. For me, this included two old pay stubs, proof of my rent, a letter completed and signed by my landlord verifying my living situation, a copy of my driver’s license and a copy of my most recent bank statement. I had a limited amount of time to collect this information before the application expired, and I would have to start all over again. After collecting all your information, it requires another trip to the county assistance office to submit copies.

Then, came the waiting. The office has thirty days to make a decision and after thirty days of waiting I received my decision: rejection. Despite my income, despite my AmeriCorps status, my paperwork wasn’t good enough and I would have to start the appeal process. In the end, after nearly two months of anxiety and frustration I was able to rectify the problem. I wish I could say my story was unique, but it’s not. One wrong document, one missed appointment can cost a family benefits that help feed their children.

Today, my benefits cover most of my food costs and help me to eat fruits and vegetables I probably would otherwise forgo to make my budget stretch. In this aspect, my situation is unique. Half of all households in Philadelphia receiving SNAP have children under the age of 18, and studies have shown that even with the maximum amount of benefits (which most families do not receive) it is not enough to cover the cost of even the most basic nutritious diet. In order to keep their kitchens filled at the end of the month, many will find themselves at a food pantry Philabundance works to fill.

So the next time you’re at the supermarket and you notice the person in front of you pull out their Access card to pay for groceries, before you make any judgments about them or what is in their cart I suggest that you take time to ask yourself one question. What do you really know about this person? Are they a single mother? Are they disabled or caring for someone who is? Are they working multiple jobs and still unable to make ends meet? Are they someone who was laid off, and is struggling to find new work? Or are they just a neighbor, someone who has already gone through enough stress in their day and simply wants to put a meal on the table at night.

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