HUFFPOST PERSONAL

Here's What Most People Don't Know About 'Being On Food Stamps'

There's nothing easy about securing or using government food assistance, and new cuts could mean catastrophic consequences for millions of people.
A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits is displayed at a Brooklyn grocery store in New York City.
A sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits is displayed at a Brooklyn grocery store in New York City.

I was gutted to learn the federal government recently approved funding cuts to the food stamp program. The first cuts, which will begin in April 2020, will remove nearly 700,000 people from the program. Ultimately, nearly 3 million people are expected to be affected.

The cuts are designed to limit what they call “work-eligible” individuals from receiving benefits. Work-eligible generally means people without dependents, who are under the age of 50, and/or who do not legally qualify as disabled. Unfortunately, what the government ― and many citizens ― think of as “work-eligible” differs from reality in many cases. Furthermore, the government is going to make it even harder for people in states with high rates of unemployment to receive benefits. Either way, these changes mean that millions of people will lose access to the assistance they so desperately need, and the consequences will be catastrophic for many of them. 

Though the term “food stamps” is still used, recipients of governmental food aid do not use literal stamps anymore. Those are what my mom, who made about $7,500 annually working as a short-order cook or receptionist, relied on to supplement her income and feed us when I was a child. Back then, food stamps came in a little paper booklet that held different colored stamps that we tore out to pay for food. That system was problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that paper booklets are subject to loss, theft or getting something spilled on them, which rendered them useless, and which certainly can happen when you have small children.

If you used food stamps, you were required by law to tear them out at the register once the cashier was done ringing up your groceries. This was supposed to prevent theft (as if people would go around handing out their food money to other people). But all it resulted in was crippling shame for me and my mother as she stood there fumbling to rip out each tiny little stamp required to buy the exact items she needed (as there was a limit as to how much change you could receive) without tearing other stamps by accident.

As if it wasn’t humiliating enough not to be able to afford our food, we were also a bother to everyone in line who resented having to “pay” for our groceries with their taxes and who looked at us with disgust as they were forced to wait while we paid. Every time we went to the store I hid myself as much as possible, fearing I would encounter classmates and they would know my shameful secret. 

As if it wasn’t humiliating enough not to be able to afford our food, we were also a bother to everyone in line who resented having to “pay” for our groceries with their taxes and who looked at us with disgust as they were forced to wait while we paid.

Now, individuals who receive assistance from the government to buy food have an “EBT” (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card, which works like a debit card, and the benefits are called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), not food stamps. I’ve had an EBT card for most of the past year and a half due to long-term unemployment. But my SNAP benefits were recently halted ― at least for the time being ― as I had a productive few months of freelance income in the summer and I no longer qualify. 

Many people who have never had to rely on government assistance to get food have a lot of misconceptions about how the system works. Some people think recipients are lazy and refuse to find work or that it’s easy to get and use these benefits, but nothing could be further from the truth. Here are a few things you might not know ― or have been misinformed about ― regarding SNAP:

  • You almost always have to use two forms of payment because necessities like toilet paper and dish soap aren’t covered by SNAP. If the other form of payment is cash, sometimes that transaction has to happen first, then the rest can be charged to the EBT card. But sometimes, it’s the reverse. Sometimes the non-eligible items have to be rung up in a completely separate transaction to make it work. No matter what, you’re still making people wait behind you.

  • EBT cards can’t be used for everything you buy at a grocery store. Not only can you not buy toilet paper, but at many stores you also can’t buy things considered “prepared food” like a rotisserie chicken. Even more confusing, some stores don’t strictly follow those rules. I have bought prepared foods at a deli with my EBT card but have been denied deli foods at a chain grocery store. Since stores don’t follow a standardized system, you have to remember which stores let you pay for what with your EBT card.

  • Many smaller, local markets ― like corner stores, which many food-insecure people can easily visit for food ― don’t take EBT cards. While someone who doesn’t rely on SNAP can run into a corner store or bodega or gas station for a carton of milk or a dozen eggs, someone using an EBT card often can’t.

  • Cashiers are often not properly trained about or aware of how to work with SNAP. I have been at stores where my entire order ― not just the items not covered by my government benefits ― was charged to my credit card because the cashier didn’t know how to properly process EBT card purchases. Then I had to wait while the order was voided by a manager and re-rung, thereby taking up more time and, once again, inspiring the ire of the shoppers waiting impatiently behind me.

  • I set a weekly budget based on how much assistance I received each month and divided it by four. That dollar figure ended up being less than half of what I used to spend on groceries, so I had to shop very carefully and rely on “filler food” like rice, bread, pasta and other carbs in hopes of staying full. Forget about trying a keto lifestyle or attempting to lose weight ― or even maintaining a healthy diet. I have gained 20 pounds since I lost my job two and a half years ago. What’s more, once your SNAP benefits for the month are gone, that’s it ― there’s no food, period. I charged groceries on my Target credit card when it got to that point, but many people don’t have that option.

  • Because of this, most people on SNAP also visit food pantries to supplement their benefits. As grateful as I am that those pantries exist, securing food from them is essentially a part-time job in and of itself. The experience is largely miserable, and you have to spend hours waiting in line each week. You can only visit each pantry once a month, so you have to have a rotating schedule of area pantries you can visit each week to keep yourself and your family fed.

  • Much of the food offered at pantries is low-quality. Fresh produce, where and when you can find it, is often extremely old and is sometimes partially rotted. I once received a package of baby carrots covered in maggots. The packaged goods, which include items like sugary cereal, brownie mix and processed peanut butter loaded with corn syrup, also make it difficult to eat healthfully. This forces SNAP users into a vicious cycle: You can’t be or become more active, energetic and productive when you are constantly filling your body with garbage, but garbage is all you can afford or are given. Poor people would be less of a drain on the system if they were healthier and had fewer debilitating conditions like diabetes, for example. 

Now, does any of that sound easy or like a good time to you?

Nina McCollum and her dog, Indigo.
Nina McCollum and her dog, Indigo.

What’s worse, as I mentioned earlier, with the new and additionally proposed cuts to SNAP, millions of people will now lose their benefits.

Many people who aren’t and never have been reliant on SNAP to make ends meet take a superficial glance at articles about the cuts and think that because they won’t affect the elderly or the disabled, they’re justified, and that younger, “able-bodied” people can and should be working. This reading of the situation completely misunderstands the extreme unemployment crisis our country is currently facing and why SNAP is so crucial for so many people.

Despite the supposed “low unemployment” numbers touted by politicians and talking heads, almost half of Americans are working in unskilled, low-paying jobs. Many others are unemployed and/or underemployed and can’t even secure a part-time job. I’m one of those people, but I’m not a unique case. And I believe it’s important for people to hear my story so that they can have a better and more complete picture of what’s really happening in America and why.

I have been looking for work ― any work ― that I can reasonably complete for two and a half years. I have applied to over 270 jobs since July 2017. Despite my years of experience, a solid body of work and a competitive resume, I have not been able to land a single full-time or steady part-time job. I couldn’t even get a call back about a “concierge” position at a nursing home that simply required greeting guests and making coffee. I do currently work ― I am using my content-writing skills as a freelancer and have been working on building up my practice these past two years ― but it is slow-going, pay is sporadic, and I am making less than one-third of what I used to make per year.

After I recently wrote about my harrowing experience with unemployment and my desperate attempts to secure a full-time job with benefits, I received hundreds of emails from people just like me  —  people who told me they read my article and cried because it was their story too. People who are “able-bodied” and under 50 but who cannot secure even a part-time job, who have been ghosted after interviews, who are desperate and tired and frustrated. 

The great majority of people on any type of assistance would love to have a steady job that pays a decent wage ― and hey, maybe even health insurance! And even if someone is unemployed, that doesn’t mean they’re kicking back and taking it easy. Most, like me, are spending their time trying to find work, filling out and following up on job applications and waiting in lines at food pantries. And as far as all of these magic jobs that are supposedly available go, I can show you my inbox full of emails from people all over the country with every type of degree and level of experience who cannot find work.

It’s heartbreaking to witness how many people openly judge others for needing help. I hope they never have to rely on the government for aid, but one day — considering how unpredictable employment conditions are in this country — they might.

There are also countless people who, like me, do not legally qualify as disabled, but who cannot work physically demanding jobs like fast food or retail that require standing, lifting and walking for hours at a time. I have multiple, chronic back conditions which make that kind of work impossible. But, because my work as a content writer can be done sitting, I am not considered “disabled” ― I simply can’t get a job I’m qualified and able to do.  

Those individuals who are able to secure one of the available, low-paying, unskilled and frequently part-time labor jobs in restaurants and retail then see their SNAP benefits reduced or eliminated, even though their income barely exceeds the financial threshold for aid. Because of this, they become even poorer than when they received benefits, as they have to pay for all of their food using their low wages.

This is unsustainable. Having to pay for food on top of their rent or mortgage and all of their other bills means they may have to move in with friends or family, live in their car or live on the streets. The cycle continues and conditions grow more and more dire.

Our government refusing to provide food aid to people who desperately need help ― people who are struggling, emotionally devastated by chronic unemployment and unable to find work that could bring them out of poverty no matter how hard they try ― is shameful. It’s also heartbreaking to witness how many people openly judge others for needing help. I hope they never have to rely on the government for aid, but one day ― considering how unpredictable employment conditions are in this country ― they might.

I certainly never thought I would find myself on SNAP. Chronic unemployment has completely changed my life and my perspective. Though I believe no one can truly comprehend or understand it ― or how difficult life is even if you receive government benefits ― unless they’ve experienced it, I hope reading my story might make others think twice about what’s happening in America and why cuts to SNAP are unwise, unjust and just plain cruel.

Nina McCollum is a writer living in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared online at sites including Good Housekeeping, Scary Mommy, The Financial Diet, BELT Magazine, and Café Mom, and she has self-published two Kindle stories. You can read her blog about life as a Midwest mom at rockandrollmama.wordpress.com or view work samples on her website, ninawritenow.com.

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