Monday, July 2, 2012

I Was on Food Stamps; I'm Not Lazy

A few days ago, an acquaintance I went to high school with posted this picture on Facebook:

Here, people on food stamps are compared to wild animals and the implication is very clear that those who receive free benefits "will not learn to take care of themselves."

I have a story. 

I was on food stamps for quite a while during my adolescence. After my parents divorced, there was a nasty custody fight, a lot of quibbling over child support, and a long, long time where all parties involved were a standstill. Court orders were ignored, feelings were hurt, my sister and I were drug in and out of courtrooms for years. 

My mom had been out of the workforce for my entire life. She had a steep learning curve ahead of her when it came to getting back, but she was determined to support her family, and she worked really hard to overcome both her lack of experience and issues with anxiety that made it hard for her to leave the house. She was brave, she was determined, and I am proud of her. 

But that path wasn't easy. And there were times when it didn't work out all that well. And, yes, for many of those times, we used food stamps. 

If we hadn't used food stamps, we would not have eaten. It's that simple. 

Also, there were jobs that my mom had to turn down because the rules for food stamps were so strict that--if she'd accepted them--she still wouldn't have been able to afford food because she'd have had to pay daycare for my little brother and the money she'd made would have disqualified her for aid. 

Welfare Makes People Lazy

I know it's an election year, and I know emotions run high, so I typically just ignore the inflammatory stuff being shared on social media sites. But this one hit a nerve, one that I didn't even know was particularly raw. For some reason, this was the first time that all of these "welfare is for lazy people" quips felt like a personal attack. And there are plenty of them. I can't even count the number of times I've seen cartoons like this one:

The image is that all people who are getting assistance are just trying to game the system so that they don't have to work for themselves. It's incredibly over simplistic, and it pretends that welfare is some sort of free ride in the lap of luxury when the truth is that the average benefits are barely enough to make ends meet. 

I take a lot of issue with this narrative, especially the image that sparked this post because rather than suggesting that people who are already lazy seek out loopholes and handouts from the system (which, really, is bad enough), the "don't feed the animals" argument suggests that getting help during a time of need is what makes someone lazy to begin with. 

One Lazy Welfare Kid's Story

I know this is just an anecdote. I know that I do not represent every person on food stamps, but this is my story. 

Watching my mom struggle to figure out how to get back on her feet after the divorce destroyed every safety net she had was sobering and terrifying . . . but in some ways it was also inspiring. It made me prouder of her than I've ever been. She navigated a minefield, and she didn't always make the right steps, but she came out on the other side and she works hard to keep her household together (without food stamps, for what it's worth.)

It also inspired me to work hard, both out of necessity and out of determination. On a typical day in high school, I got up early and tutored for an hour before school, worked at fast food restaurants in the afternoons, and worked other odd jobs on the weekend. I'm not telling you this to be all "woe is me," and I know that there are plenty of people out there who had/have it harder. I had what I needed: a roof over my head, clothes, and food. But I also paid bills and bought most of my own food and clothes. 

Then I worked at least two jobs all through undergrad. I would spend time between classes working in the Writing Center on campus and evenings and weekends working at Wal-Mart. I graduated summa cum laude and went to graduate school, where I also worked multiple jobs. 

I vividly remember sitting in a classroom my senior year of high school. I was exhausted, having worked until close at a Dairy Queen the night before and getting ready to go right back as soon as school let out. A group of kids were sitting around chatting about cars, and one girl had started to dominate the conversation because she was getting a new car that week. As they discussed their preferences, I was thinking about my car (which I've talked about in the past): a rusted-out Dodge Shadow convertible with a broken top. It cost me $300. I said prayers that it would get me to my destination without incident every time I got in it. While I'm thinking about this, I hear the girl go off on a rant about how her parents weren't letting her pick the make and model of her brand new car that they were buying for her. It ended with the line, "and so I said to them, if you aren't going to let me pick the car I want it better be fully loaded!" Yet I'm somehow the one getting set up for future work ethic problems because my mother wanted to make sure we could eat. 

There are plenty of things you can criticize about me--my cluttered house, my somewhat tragic fashion sense, my tendency to get overwhelmed by numbers, among other things--but you can't question my work ethic. It's strong. 

Some Facts

So, that was my personal story. I hope that it does something to disturb the notion that all people who are on food stamps will grow up to be lazy and self-indulgent. At the same time, I want to do something to dispel the myth that people currently on food stamps are lazy and self-indulgent, too. 

Look, I know that there is fraud in the system (I've seen it firsthand), but I also know that the majority of people using food stamps are using them because they need them. Furthermore, I know that--even for those people who are abusing the system--the benefits are not some amazing ticket to the good life. They're a fraction of what most people spend in a month. 

So, here are some facts:

In fiscal year 2010, the program achieved the highest level of overall payment accuracy in its history: the national overpayment error rate—the percentage of SNAP benefit dollars issued in excess of the amounts for which households are eligible—fell to 3.05 percent; the underpayment error rate was less than 1.00 percent. (USDA April 2012 report)

  • Most food stamp participants are children and the elderly (about 55% of all individuals receiving assistance). Of the remaining 45%, many are single parents in households with children:
USDA April 2012 report

  • Not all people on food stamps are jobless. About 30% of all households have earnings from a job.
  • SNAP is not a lifelong plan for most people:
Half of all new SNAP participants received benefits for 10 months or less in the mid 2000s, up from 8 months in the early 2000s. Single parent families and elderly individuals tended to stay in the program longer than did working poor individuals, childless adults without disabilities, and noncitizens. Seventy-four percent of new participants left the program within two years. This is an increase from 71 percent in the early 1990s. (USDA April 2012 report)
Take a look at those numbers. Three-fourths of new participants entering the program were off of assistance within two years. Since the majority of those remaining on longer are people with children and elderly individuals, that means that an even higher percentage of working poor and childless adults only used the benefits for a brief period of time. That suggests to me that they needed the help and were willing to use all of their resources to get to a place where they didn't need the help as soon as they could. What would have happened to those people if the assistance they needed to eat hadn't been there? 

  • This wasn't brought up in this particular Facebook post, but I've seen it often enough that I'm going to go ahead and throw it in. Most of the recipients of food stamps are white. I'm really, really tired of people using "food stamp" references as veiled (or, in some cases, not-so-veiled) racial commentary:

In 2011, more than 45 million people – about one in seven Americans – received benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most ever. Fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier.
Forty-nine percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to Census data.
(Washington, Huffington Post article). 
Also, do you see how many people are on assistance? "About one in seven Americans." Do we honestly believe one in seven people are lazy good-for-nothings who can't contribute to their society? Think about that for a second. That means that a lot of people that you personally know are probably in this group. Do you really want to paint with that broad of a brush?

Nuance is Important

I know that it's a lot easier to send out a simple cartoon or picture that denigrates the "opposing side" during these heated months leading up to an election. I'm not trying to demonize the people who are using these tactics because it's somewhat human nature to boil things down to their simplest terms and then set up dichotomies that make the world look simple to navigate.

If only lazy people are on welfare, then welfare is bad. Look, simple.

But the world isn't simple. Pretending that you can make sweeping generalizations about groups of people is stereotyping. It's by its very definition overly simplistic and doesn't take into account the lived experiences of real people.

Not to mention, letting ourselves fall into these dichotomized ways of thinking impacts our ability to empathize. The fact is that many, many people (people we know, maybe even ourselves) are going to need help over the course of their lives. Lives are messy. Things happen. Recognizing that can go a long way toward making the recovery from those messes a lot easier on everyone.  


  1. Great post. I was not on food stamps as a kid, but we did get WIC assistance, which is similar, and we only used it when my brother and sister were infants. I love the statistic you gave of people only using welfare assistance for 2 years. I agree that most people only use it when they have to in order to get through a tough time. Partly, I think this is because there is an element of shame involved in using welfare. People are not proud of it, and it is often a last resort. I never used any welfare assistance in my personal life and have always had a strong work ethic as well.

    But, to the person who wrote your opening picture that sparked this issue, I did go to college for free with a large portion of my tuition covered by a Pell Grant. So, you could say that I did take a government handout for 4 years. Does that make me lazy too?

  2. My family and I live on food stamps. They give us $200 a month for three people, because apparently college students don't need to eat. Both my sister and I work, but everything we make goes to bills and college fees, despite our grants, so we never have much left over for food. My mom is currently climbing a similar steep learning curve as your mom did, only she's turning 60 this year, after a 15 year absence from the work force, so the curve is extremely steep indeed, and finding work at her age is proving difficult. None of us are lazy.

    It is tiring to the bone to constantly have to defend our need for food stamps and other "socialist" programs like (laughable) low-income health care. I am tired of being called names by ignorant, privileged jerks who don't know what it's like to spend the last two weeks of every month looking in an empty fridge and counting down days until either pay day or food stamp reload. We live in a broken system where the cycle of poverty is self perpetuating no matter how hard you work, and the only way out is half grinding yourself to the bone, and half luck. Better hope you never get sick or injured on the jobs you can get right now (if you don't have a "decent" degree yet) or else everything you've worked for until now will be flushed down the toilet.

    Thanks for this article, it's nice to see someone who understands what it's like.

  3. Great post! I have always thought the rhetoric around laziness and foodstamps unfair if not really strange. As you point out yourself with statistics, people are not on welfare for very long time and fraud is all time low. People have to *qualify* for welfare, it is not just something that appears in your mailbox one day. Thanks for the personal angle to the story.

  4. I've never read your blog before, but a friend of mine posted a link to this page on her Facebook, and I'm SO glad you wrote this. My mom and I got food stamps when I was little, too, after she and my father divorced and while she was going to trade school. It made me so mad when I saw that mean little newspaper scan going around FB that I just wanted to spit.

    Thank you.

  5. I remember once talking to a conservative seminarian (nice fellow, usually, though he thought priests should be able to trade on the market) and we had just read about a woman who had lost her legs because she'd been denied Medicaid & a state funded kidney transplant, and he STILL thought the state of Missouri had made the right decision. A hundred years ago, President Grover Cleveland, the one who had the mistress and little bastard, denied seeds to drought struck farmers, for the reason he didn't want them to be dependent. It's scary stuff. I am on Social Security Disability, and I got one of those things in the mail the other day "Does your doctor say you can work yet?"

  6. While I feel your pain & understand your story - i personally know of about 10 people that are sitting on welfare that do not need to be
    Now-a-days, unfortunately, that is the case.

    The few that need it suffer for the majority that dont.

    When I was younger & needed to get on my feet (single mom with a child) - I did have to receive food stamps.......
    However, I did do what needed to be done to be on them only a few short months. They were not my main income for years/decades

    I know that you take that article to heart...but - I truly believe it was not meant for all - just the lazy lifers working the system.

    I hope that this helps....

    1. I am definitely not suggesting that there's no fraud or freeloading in the system; there is. But I also think that it's a lot easier to see the ten people sitting on welfare that don't need to be than the many more who are using it the way it's intended to be. For one thing, people who are on it for a short time and only using it to get back on their feet are much less visible to people outside of their own homes.

      You say "Now-a-days, unfortunately, that is the case." But did you look at the statistics? Fraud in SNAP funds is at an all-time low. You cannot base broad-scale analysis off a handful of personal observations.

      The article may have been inspired by the few who are working the system, but it was definitely meant for all. There's no room for nuance in boiling things down to a blanket statement that says "feeding the animals" (ridiculously offensive in itself) makes people on assistance dependent. That's insulting and aimed at everyone who uses assistance. It doesn't say that it's fine to feed the bird with the broken wing but not the bear who's being lazy. It says "don't feed the animals."

      Maybe you personally don't mean to aim criticism at everyone on assistance, but that's exactly what the original news article does.