No SNAP for You!

This post by Nathaniel Romano, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

Seinfeld, once the anchor of NBC’s “Must-See TV,” gave us many memorable characters, including the so-called “Soup Nazi.” A temperamental restaurateur sells soup that is praised far and wide. However, he is very particular about how his customers must behave. Only the worthy get soup; the rest are dismissed with a curt “No soup for you!”

Apparently the Soup Nazi is the role model for a new strain of legislative misbehavior. Missouri Republican Rick Brattin wants to ban poor people from eating steak and seafood, as well as energy drinks, cookies, chips, and soft drinks. That’s not hyperbole. The language is taken straight from the bill he has introduced to the Missouri State Legislature. Thankfully, though, he won’t ban coffee. So, hey, at least we know that the working poor will be caffeinated enough to get through their hectic and irrational work days.

To be clear, the bill would not tell stores to refuse service to poor people. Rather, it would eliminate what sorts of foods would be eligible for purchase for those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, more commonly referred to as “food stamps,” is a federal program to ensure that everyone in the United States has sufficient and nutritious food. Although a federally-funded program, it is administered by the individual states. Thus, each state is able to set certain requirements over and above the federally-mandated income rules, and each state has leeway to limit how the program is used.

Legislators like Mr. Brattin are apparently seriously agitated by the possibility that SNAP recipients are indulging in luxury items, like the aforementioned seafood and steak. They are upset at stories, like this one Fox News ran a few years ago, where someone proudly discusses how getting a job “isn’t for him” and uses “our wonderful tax dollars” for such indulgences as lobster and sushi. It is, in all honesty, a re-hash of  Ronald Reagan’s old “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” trope. These stories play on fears and anger that someone is gaming the system and avoiding real work to get big payoffs.

It was a ridiculous charge when Reagan made it. It is a ridiculous charge when Mr. Brattin and his colleagues (and Fox News) make it. And it will be a ridiculous charge the next time someone decides to announce publicly what financially distressed individuals should or should not be allowed to buy.

SNAP is not a set of coupons allowing someone to get what she wants from any old grocery store. One does not simply walk into Whole Foods, hand over your SNAP card and announce, “Oh, I’d like some surf & turf tonight. Give me lobster tail and a juicy porterhouse.”  Or, if you did, you’d likely not be eating too much the rest of the month.  Because, of course, SNAP, like many forms of public assistance, is incredibly stingy, both in terms of who qualifies and in terms of what benefits are received.

To start off, the federal government already limits what can be purchased with SNAP benefits. Generally speaking, you can only use SNAP benefits to purchase groceries – grains and breads; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish, and poultry; and dairy products. “Junk foods” do qualify as foods (at least legally), and so can be purchased, as can live animals traditionally purchased for human consumption (think the lobsters in the tank at your local fishmonger).

That seems fairly broad, but there are restrictions. Benefits cannot be used to purchase hot meals, vitamins or nutritional supplements, non-food groceries, pet food, beer, wine, or other alcohol, or food to be consumed on the premises.1 Also, retailers must be approved to receive SNAP benefits and, of course, must agree to accept them, something they are not required to do.

Beyond these restrictions, the government limits who can receive SNAP benefits and how much an individual receives. The calculations are quite strict.2 Restrictions come in two flavors – income limits and asset limits. Households are limited both in the amount of income coming in, as well as the amount of personal assets — bank accounts, vehicles, etc. — that they can have.3 For example, a single individual can make no more than $1,265 per month; for a family of four, the limit rises to $2,584 (the numbers are slightly different if there are elderly members). To put that in perspective, $1,265 a month is $7.90 per hour, assuming a forty-hour work week over a four-week month. So, if you make just over minimum wage and are full-time, you won’t qualify.

Assuming you do qualify, your benefit is relatively limited.4 An individual with no income gets the monthly maximum of $194. As her income goes up, her benefit will go down. But, even if you get the maximum amount, you haven’t won the grocery jackpot. That $194 works out to just under $7 per day in a 30-day month. At three meals per day, that is just about $2.67 per meal. Hardly luxurious.

Remember our surf & turf eating friend from above? Were he to actually try to eat that on his SNAP benefit, he would find himself scrimping for the rest of the month. At a local Omaha-area Walmart, a relatively inexpensive place to buy groceries, a simple and inexpensive version of surf & turf would run just over $20 dollars, or about a tenth of your total maximum potential allotment for an individual. For one meal. Clearly, no one is getting rich off SNAP (or other government assistance for that matter). So why the fuss?

Mr. Brattin admits it openly to the Washington Post. He thinks poor people should not be spending taxpayer money on what he considers luxurious.

“My intention wasn’t to get rid of canned tuna and fish sticks,” he said. But he also insists that people are abusing the system by purchasing luxury foods, and believes that that must be stopped, even if it ends up requiring the inclusion of other less luxurious items.

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards,” he said. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

As you can see, his concern is not with the nutritional values of the food, but with the perception that these people should not have this kind of food. Canned tuna is OK. Ahi tuna, though, is clearly out. Processed fish sticks are acceptable. Fresh fish, not so much.

Nutritionists already are concerned about SNAP benefits and healthy eating. And that might be an interesting discussion to have. The conversation sparked by this kind of legislation, however, is misguided. Worse, it is uncharitable. It reflects an unhealthy attempt to stigmatize, marginalize, and control a population already suffering under heavy stigmas, living on the margins, and heavily controlled by burdensome government regulations and police interactions.

Why should any of us care how a particular family chooses to spend its money or what it chooses to eat? All of our families make choices regarding food that is subject to second-guessing by others. Maybe we splurge on steak because it is our son’s birthday. Maybe we buy a pack of cookie-dough flavored Oreo’s just to have a simple snack at the end of the day. Maybe we just buy whatever’s on sale.

Rules such as the law being proposed in Missouri aren’t about healthy eating. And they are not about preventing fraud or making the system function better. They are about shaming. They are about judging. They allow us to make a moral judgment about a person and tell that person how to behave. At some level, they allow us to punish someone for being poor. Food is an essential human right. And rules like this embarrass people for daring to try to exercise that right with dignity.

If we say we’ll feed someone, but only on our own terms, we are not doing it for them, but for ourselves. It is already difficult enough for someone to get access to sufficient nutrition. There is no need for us to be smug and insufferable about what sorts of nutrition we’ll let them have access to. We don’t need to be latter-day soup nazis.

— // —

  1. Certain elderly and disabled recipients can use SNAP benefits in exchange for hot meals at pre-approved restaurants. The idea behind this is that food is not particularly helpful when someone lacks the means to actually cook it.
  2. Similar calculations govern most, if not all, programs that form part of the so-called “safety net.” Beyond income limits, certain immigrants or other non-citizens are excluded from these programs. Because, of course, poor immigrants don’t need to eat?
  3. Such calculations are quite complex. The link above contains the full chart for both assets and income limits.
  4. The government assumes that a household will spend 30% of its income on food. Thus, a “maximum allotment” is determined based on the income eligibility. The specific applicant has his or her monthly income multiplied by 0.3, that amount is subtracted from the monthly maximum allotment, and the difference is the actual benefit.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

The Risk of Friendship by Jeffrey Wallace: “That is the blessing, and the risk, of friendship. We give ourselves in vulnerability to one another without knowing whether or not we will be loved and accepted as who we are.”

If Nuns Ruled the World by Jo Piazza: “With seed money from her congregation, Sister Joan officially created LifeWay Network, a nonprofit that would provide housing for victims of trafficking and education about the reality of human trafficking, in 2007. LifeWay’s first challenge was finding an actual house for the survivors, one that they would be able to keep a secret.”

The Clergy Speaks – Father James Martin, SJ by Pete Socks: “What five books would you recommend as must-reads for Catholics today? I left the responses open to current or classic books with the only restriction being that the Bible and the Catechism could not be used as they are a given. This week we welcome Father James Martin, S.J. author and editor at large at America, the national Catholic magazine.”

I Don’t Want to Smell Your Pot Smoke and I Don’t Think it Should Be Legalized by Jennifer Garam: “One person’s ‘right’ to smoke pot shouldn’t trump other people’s right to breathe clean air, or comfortably inhabit the apartment they pay rent for. And I can only imagine that legalizing pot will make it that much more prevalent, and leave those who are affected by the secondhand smoke with that much less recourse to protect themselves.”

There’s Nothing Wrong with the Mommy Track by Rachel Simmons: “Our culture sings in only two keys about how successful women manage motherhood and work: either you’re driving a hard line to the C-suite, parking the crib in your corner office, or you’re shredding the Mommy track. But what about those of us who are still working hard, and who live and work somewhere between the two? I love being a mom, and I also love (and can’t afford not to) work.”

Past time to solve hunger in America by Bob Aiken, Ellie Hollander, Tom Nelson and Lisa Marsh Ryerson: “Hunger in America is a solvable problem through the collaboration of government, industry, nonprofits and generous individuals—but we must do more.”


Why Ending Hunger is a Pro-life Issue

Life is our most fundamental right. I believe each person is entitled to their own life, each government is bound to protect the lives of those within their borders, no person has the right to take the life of another, and every life is a sacred gift no matter how long that life is. This is why I have counted myself as a member of the pro-life movement for many years. I am convinced that a person’s life is worth saving, worth living, and worth defending.

Although I am pro-life, I have become deeply concerned with how the pro-life movement seems complacent in standing up for policies that would protect and preserve one of the most basic needs of each human life: food.

The global community stands at a unique point in history. We have, for the first time, the real possibility of effectively ending hunger in the world. Since 1990 the number of hungry people in the world has been halved. Global poverty is on the decline. Technology, public policy, and international cooperation have opened new possibilities that previous generations never would have thought possible. Organizations like Caritas Internationalis and Bread for the World are now forecasting that we can see hunger ended within a generation. We have the possibility of living in a world where people going hungry is something only found in history books—not in the distant future, but within the next decade or two. The millions who die each year from hunger can be saved. All it requires is global leadership, a strong will, and a commitment to stay the course toward ending hunger.

The pro-life movement would be natural allies in this work. Not only does feeding people save the lives of those who are at risk of dying from hunger, it also strengthens the cause of the unborn.  As conditions become more stable for children and mothers, and food becomes less scarce, mothers are better prepared to receive a child and less likely to resort to abortion. Not only that, but partnerships like 1,000 Days and the Scaling up Nutrition Movement focus not only on providing care for unborn children, but also fight to make sure that children and mothers are given proper nutrition up until a child’s second birthday. Fighting hunger is the right thing to do—it saves the lives of millions of children and creates a world where millions more can be welcomed into a healthy home that is open to life.

Working for food security is working to strengthen a culture of life from the womb to the tomb.

I have been encouraged by a number of pro-life leaders who have taken this cause to heart. Take, for example, Rep. Chris Smith (R – NJ), Co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, who recently took up the cause of global nutrition. Calling malnutrition the “great killer of children,” he has called for supporters on both sides of the aisle to sponsor legislation that addresses providing nutrition for mothers and children from the moment of a child’s conception to their second birthday. Helping provide food in this crucial window, Smith emphasizes, is “life-affirming, and can save the life of both mother and child.” I couldn’t agree more. Pro-life Democrats have also taken up the cause. For example, former congressional representative and US Ambassador Tony Hall has made ending hunger a top priority throughout his career and now serves as the director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

In spite of this encouraging leadership, there is still a great deal of timidity among far too many to stand up for ending hunger. Recently Paul Ryan, a vocal anti-abortion Catholic, crafted a US budget that cuts the International Affairs budget by a devastating eleven percent in addition to sharp cuts that have already handicapped our ability to provide lifesaving care to millions due to sequestration cuts. Another outspoken member of the pro-life movement, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca), has recently pushed a provision through the Coast Guard authorization bill which essentially subsidizes the shipping industry out of the USAID budget and would result in 2 million fewer people receiving the food they need. Pro-life advocates have remained surprisingly silent on these issues.

Today half of all child deaths are nutrition related, but these kids don’t need to die. The end of hunger is on the horizon. We can create a future where children don’t go hungry. Yet our pro-life policymakers are too often the hands that steer our course away from this goal. It is time for the pro-life community to begin to champion food security. It is time to fight for life.


Around the Web (Part 1)

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Who cares about the value of work? by EJ Dionne: “One of last week’s most important and least noted political events was the introduction of the 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray favors a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, but she also has other ideas that would help Americans at the bottom of the income structure to earn more.”

Chinese parents, trapped in one-child web, give babies away on Internet by Reuters: “Baby trafficking has been encouraged by the one-child policy and a traditional bias for sons, who support elderly parents and continue the family name, leading to the abandonment of girls. Even as China starts to relax the one-child policy, allowing millions of families to have a second child, it still penalizes people who flout the rules.”

The Christian Penumbra by Ross Douthat: “For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold. But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.”

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: 25 Years of Image by Dan Wakefield: “Though I pray in some form or other every day I had not for a while thought of doing what Henri had asked—no words, simply sitting quietly and asking to be in the presence of Jesus. I did that yesterday, and I felt a great peace.”

Paul Ryan + Immoral Budgets = Public Service Award from a Catholic university? by John Gehring: “Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals have been challenged in recent years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, prominent Catholic theologians, a “Nuns on the Bus” tour and respected anti-poverty experts. When your guiding ideology seems to be making life harder for the working poor and coddling the super rich with more tax breaks, you better expect some moral scrutiny along the way.”

Icons of faith who said ‘yes’ by OSV Newsweekly: “OSV staff highlights four saints who answered God’s call no matter what.”

To the Edges by Erin Cline: “My grandmother taught me that God’s love is made visible in the world not in grand pronouncements, but in the simplest things done out of love.”

Catholic Church blasts Venezuela for ‘brutal repression’ of protesters by Reuters: “Venezuela’s Roman Catholic Church accused President Nicolas Maduro’s government on Wednesday of ‘totalitarian’ tendencies and ‘brutal repression’ of demonstrators during two months of political unrest that has killed several dozen people.”

The Faces of Food Stamps by Maya Rhodan: “These people could be your neighbors, your co-workers, or the person standing behind you at the supermarket.”


Seeing the World Through “Bread–colored” Lenses: How Policies Affect Hunger

I see the world through “bread–colored” lenses. By this I mean that when I approach issues of politics, economics, the environment, immigration, worship, trade, agriculture, and just about everything else in this world, there is a question in the back of my mind: the way these issues impact how people will be able to eat. I have discovered that hunger is a barb that seems to follow all kinds of injustice. In a world where there is more than enough to eat, when people go hungry, it is often a sign that there are systems that can be changed and probably should be changed. I see the world through bread-colored lenses, and that is why I chose to work at Bread for the World.

Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s policy makers to end hunger at home and abroad. I love this mission. I have given my life for the church. I spent 10 years working in local churches preaching, teaching, and leading people to encounter God, the just One, who leads us to work for justice. In that time, I saw the power of faith communities to affect change. We would go out on the streets to feed the hungry, help establish food pantries, work at soup kitchens, and participate in efforts around the globe that sought to free communities from hunger.

Gradually, I started to see that those efforts were an essential part of addressing hunger, but not a full solution. You can give a man a fish, or even teach a man to fish, but if the fish pond has been locked up and all the bait and tackle are taken away, he’s not going to be able to survive on fish very long. Many of the issues that cause hunger in the world today are systemic and global, and require global leaders to address the systems that keep people hungry and impoverished.

Bread for the World encourages Christian voices from across denominational traditions to come together and, with one voice, proclaim that food is a human right necessary for all of us to fulfill our most basic vocation, that of life itself. Bread has been able to cut across the divides of policy, theology, and political affiliation to make sure that members of Congress take seriously the concerns of hunger, both in this country and around the world. For the past 40 years, Bread for the World has been able to not only affect significant change in Congress, but also to equip thousands of churches and communities of faith to make addressing hunger a part of their spiritual lives together. Through the annual Offering of Letters and countless other mobilization efforts, prayer and action have been united, and communities have been equipped in their mission to invite the justice of God into the communities they inhabit.

I also see the world through Catholic-colored lenses. My faith inspires and enlivens every part of my life and work. My role at Bread for the World is to represent and reach out to Catholics in Bread’s work. I help ensure that everything that Bread does is not only compatible with Catholic teaching, but also that it can be enriched by Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church has a great deal to offer to ecumenical efforts to establish a just and equitable world, and I have the great pleasure of meeting and planning with Catholic leaders around the nation about how we can work together to bring the wisdom and resources of the Catholic Church to bear on the global movement to end hunger.


My Mom Is On Food Stamps?!

Last month, my mother told me she was receiving food stamps. When she told me, my first reaction was one of embarrassment—what was my mother doing wrong that she wasn’t able to provide for herself? Then frustration—why didn’t she tell me that this was how she was surviving, since I am very fortunate to have a well-paying job at the moment? Shouldn’t I have saved her from the shame of having to ask for a hand-out? Then disorientation—only a few weeks before, in my capacity as a board member of a non-profit, the Executive Director had asked me for a $10,000 multi-year donation. What world was I living in that one moment I was being asked to be a major donor, and the next I was hearing all about my mom’s trip to the food shelf, how she was starting to volunteer there, how the available food was shrinking, and how one weekend she got a bushel of heirloom tomatoes?

Then I took a step back and asked my mom about the experience of getting food stamps. Here’s part of what she told me about waiting in line to apply:

Sitting there, watching the people in the line, I focused on many people but mainly the older women. Quite a few older white women probably in similar situations as I am in. Lots of older women with their daughters and often young grandchildren. They came as support for their daughters, I presume. I wonder what they had gone through with their daughters to get them here. And what are their lives like?  I gained strength by imagining their lives and just looking at them. People in line had such dignity. No complaining, no pushing and shoving, some visiting among us. Beautiful people. Some young fathers with kids, also old men. Our world would be a better place if everyone had a chance to stand in this line.

Comparing my reaction with hers, I recognized with surprise how much I had internalized the dehumanizing rhetoric directed at poor people, a group that now includes members of my family. Asking for help to put food on the table should not be a cause for shame. However, instead of merely ignoring people who need help feeding their families, political leaders like Paul Ryan, who claims to be Catholic, are actively blaming them for the problems of our economy that excludes so many. The prophets of old attributed Israel’s tribulations to how it ignored the widows, the orphans, and the strangers. The demagogues of today blame the widows, the orphans, and the strangers for asking for basic sustenance. Far from embracing the preferential option for the poor, these politicians are advocating an active preferential scapegoating of the poor.

Those of us who take our faith seriously need to change the terms of debate. We need to fight against the attitude that suggests that something is wrong with you if you receive government help. Quite simply, being poor says very little about your work ethic and even less about your dignity as a person.

My mother is very  typical of many American women—because of nearly constant work as a full-time caretaker, she has not had the opportunity to have a career that would pay her adequately or allow her to save for retirement. She initially stayed at home with my sister and me when we were very small. Later she began to build her career, but lost it a few years later when my sister became critically ill and she had to switch to an hourly service sector job so she could have the flexibility she needed to care for her daughter. Later, after decades of marriage, my father divorced her, breaking not only a moral commitment, but an economic one, thatshe would be the primary caretaker and he the primary breadwinner. Finally, my mother was a full-time caretaker for my grandmother for several years until she passed away, and now she is a full-time caretaker for my sister in her “retirement”, surviving on a fixed income of just over $1000 a month plus what I can contribute.

My mother has worked hard as a caretaker all of her life, but this simply does not pay financially. Judged by her tax return, she is a failure as a person. But judged by the hours of work she actually puts in, she doesn’t seem quite so lazy and unproductive. Salary.com has a powerful tool that calculates the unpaid labor of caretakers. On mom.salary.com, by simply plugging in a zip code and estimating the amount of time spent on various tasks, you get a fair market value approximation of what this labor is actually worth. I asked my mother to do this, and the number crunching showed that she deserved a salary of $83,131. (Salary.com’s average is $113,586 and male caretakers certainly can check out this calculator.)

My mother does not see food stamps as something to be ashamed of. She knows she has worked hard her entire life but that her labor has simply not been recognized. She has dedicated her life to taking care of her family, and, in her jobs, often working with the poorest of the poor. Living a simple and non-materialistic life does not scare her, and she doesn’t wish for a lot more. But she also does not feel any guilt for receiving a bit of support after the years and years of service to her family and community in myriad ways.

As a young professional, I appreciate the opportunity to pay thousands and thousands of dollars in taxes each year to provide support to other families around the country. As a child, I was privileged to drink clean water, live in a safe town, and go to good public schools, thanks to the taxes of people I would never meet. This gave me access to higher education that in turn has led to financial success. There is nothing unjust or undignified about my mother needing government help and me being in a position to be able to fund this government help, both for her and for people who I will never meet.

My hope is that Catholic leaders from across the political spectrum will stop demonizing people who receive help from the government. I hope that Representative Paul Ryan and others can start to listen to the stories behind the hyperbole, of men and women who contribute to the common good of our communities each and every day even though they depend on government support to eat.

A millennial Catholic who preferred to remain anonymous.