Jobless Forced to Sell Food Stamps on the Black Market to Survive

The New York Times crunched some federal data back in January and found that 6 million Americans now receive food stamps but no other form of income. Today, a new investigation from ColorLines in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute has uncovered one key to their survival: selling their food stamps on the black market for cash.

As a recent Depression-era diary edited by Big Money's James Ledbetter documents, during the bank closures of the 1930s, desperate families would sell their passbooks to shuttered banks for 50 or 60 cents on the dollar. Reporting in 2010 in the severely "recessed" city of Hartford, Connecticut, which has been struggling for decades to rebuild from the death of manufacturing, I had a case of déjà vu. There I met several unemployed mothers who've surpassed their lifetime welfare limits who told me they sell their food stamps at the corner bodega for 70 cents on the dollar just to cover basics like utility bills and winter shoes for their kids.

"Nobody's had work for a few years now," Carmen Cordero, a longtime welfare rights activist with the Hartford-based group Vecinos Unidos, told me. "People need a base. They need a safety net. They need continued support. Women have to make horrible choices when they lose cash."

One woman I met, Eva Hernandez (she asked me not to use her real name because selling food stamps is illegal), a 28-year-old mother of two young girls, is now precipitously close to the edge. After working low-wage jobs at places like Dunkin Donuts and KFC for close to a decade, tapping public assistance off and on over the years to supplement her poverty wages, Eva used up her lifetime allotment of cash assistance. Last March, in the midst of the worst job crisis in at least a generation, Eva opened the last welfare check she will ever receive. Now, unable to find any work at all, she's been pushed to break the law to get by.

Welcome to the post-welfare world, where Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich's 1996 welfare reform meets the great recession and double-digit unemployment.

See the full investigation at ColorLines and The Investigative Fund.