The Real SNAP Challenge

Over the last couple of weeks, a number of high-profile officials have been participating in the "SNAP Challenge." The challenge was designed to oppose proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the public benefit program formerly referred to as "food stamps." The proposed $20.5 billion dollar cuts to the program being considered by Congress would cut an estimated 2 million people from benefits and 200,000 children from the school lunch program.

This issue is especially relevant to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, which has a disproportionately high poverty rate. According to one survey, transgender people are four times as likely to have an annual income under $10,000 and twice as likely to be unemployed than non-transgender people.

Further, as a study from the Williams Institute recently illustrated, same-sex couples are more likely than their straight counterparts to live below the poverty line. This was particularly pronounced among black same-sex couples, who had a poverty rate at least twice that of straight black couples, and black men in same-sex couples were six times more likely than white men to live in poverty. According to the same study, same-sex couples are also more likely to be dependent on public assistance programs, including SNAP.

To protest efforts to gut the SNAP program, dozens of members of Congress and other elected officials participated in the SNAP Challenge to highlight how hard it is to live off of the budget of the average SNAP recipient. They've spoken and tweeted about the difficulties they've encountered adhering to the budget, and used the opportunity to draw attention to the impact these cuts would have on real families.

However, this protest has received a disturbing backlash. A number of conservatives have fired back on Twitter and in commentary, arguing that they would be able to live just fine on a SNAP budget, and in fact, low-income families could live off even less.

This cynical response is missing the central point of the SNAP Challenge. They are ignoring the real challenge of living in poverty. Namely, living in poverty. Not for a week and not on Twitter, but in real life and for every single day.

The piece they're missing is the same piece missing in most public discussions about how poverty works in America. It's the understanding that living in poverty isn't the same thing as being broke or frugal. Poverty is not living off of Top Ramen in college waiting for a financial aid check or the next visit from parents. And it's certainly not being unemployed in college while relying on the selling of shares of stock. It's not a romantic memory to look back on once grit, determination, and other people's money have paved the way for economic mobility.

Poverty is not buying groceries for a week on a fixed income. Poverty is the week after the SNAP Challenge ends. And every week after that.

Those taking the SNAP Challenge seriously and using it to advocate for low-income families - like Congresswoman Barbara Lee who organized the protest - clearly understand this distinction. But those using the challenge to basically argue that being poor wouldn't be so bad - or at least that they'd be better at it than those currently experiencing it - are invoking a glamorized vision of poverty to respond to a significantly more bleak reality. One of the most terrifying and impossible to replicate aspects of poverty and economic insecurity is the knowledge that things are unlikely to get any better, and the lack of a safety net, for example, savings, family members, or the knowledge that this is an experiment that will end in a week.

The difference between spending a week restricted to a $31.50 food budget and actually living that reality daily is the difference between being on a waterslide and trying to survive onboard a sinking ship.

The privileged and smug responses to the effort lawmakers are making to highlight the experience of those who rely on public assistance illustrate a dangerous fetishization of poverty in this country. It's a reimagining of economic insecurity as something that can be easily overcome and, thus, by extension, as something for which those who experience it are essentially to blame. That position may make it easier to justify the extreme cuts being contemplated to the SNAP program, but it is intellectually and emotionally dishonest. Moreover, it misses the opportunity for a long-overdue, honest examination of poverty and public assistance in this country, which is the real test at the heart of the SNAP Challenge.