Friday, December 4, 2009

Busting Food Stamp Myths

It's not surprising that during an economic downturn, more people turn out to recieve food stamps. The USDA just released its estimates about food stamp participation rates, based on 2007 data. According to this report, an estimated 1.4 million Pennsylvanians are eligible for food stamps, of which about 76% are currently enrolled in the program. The New York Times and The Post-Gazette ran the same article referring to a USDA report on food stamp usage and the diminishing stigma associated with using applying for food assistance. Despite the growing need and usage, this article demonstrates the pervasive myths about food stamps that even those who have applied for and receive benefits believe. This post is aimed at three of myths mentioned in this article:

1. People avoid marraige to get food assistance.

It doesn't matter if you are married or not to your significant other - or your roommate. If you share food, you are expected to apply together and report both incomes. That's the law, people!

2. Food Stamps discourage work and hurt the economy.

Before each food stamp application, we do a quick screening just to make sure people are most likely eligible before we start the application. I've definitely had this conversation several times with individuals who are barely over income and wonder, "Would it pay off for me to make less and become eligible for food stamps?" Would you drop your gross pay by $60 to get $37 in food stamps? No. How about take of $200 in pay to get $77 in food stamps? Honestly, the situations where it might pay off are when people are literally just over the guideline and have high shelter costs.

If you are a student, unless you meet certain exceptions, you have to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible, no matter how hungry and broke you are.

Furthermore, food stamps don't hurt the economy! Actually, for every dollar dolled out in benefits, a multiplier effect occurs.

3. Food stamps are basically cash assistance, but with fewer restrictions.

Food Stamps can only be used to purchase food - unless you are doing something illegal. And there are restrictions on it: in Pennsylania some food stamp applicants are asked to participate in work-readiness programs. It has only been since the fall of 2008 that non-disabled adults without children can receive food stamps for longer than 90 days.

A lot of people applying for food stamps for the first time, especially seniors, are often shocked and sometimes insulted by how low the income guidelines are, how low their benefit amount can be, or how much paperwork is asked for. This is after all, a system that is supposed to be there to help people, right? This is a safety net for people at vulnerable times in their lives who are stepping out and saying: "I need help meeting my basic needs and the needs of my family, I can't do it on my own." The last thing anyone in need should have to deal with is accusations or opinions about their moral standing in society.

Being poor is not a crime! A lot of this conservative rhetoric encourages people to feed their families cheap, malnutritious food instead of applying for assistance, which results in all sorts of health-related and social ills.

Ann Sanders assists people in the application process for food stamps in Just Harvest's Food Stamp's Make a Difference Program.

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