Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Food Assistance isn't the problem.

One area of social policy that has received a lot of attention more than it should in a negative way lately is social assistance for the poor in the way of food stamps. It is a long held belief by some that this is taxpayer’s money being given to free loaders, and poor people who refuse to work and support themselves. There are rampant reports about the misuse and abuse of food stamps or Link in the media. Some people take the apparently compassionate point of view that food stamps trap the poor and create a system that will never allow them to get on their feet independently. The news media—especially Fox News—is quick to highlight instances of people caught gaming the system. In more subtle ways it has led to the idea that most recipients of food assistance are minorities, which makes people respond to this in many ways. I have heard numerous stories both from Fox News and fellow Republican colleagues about how food stamp recipients dine on steak and lobster with their meager food assistance benefits, which is a myth.

What is not portrayed in the mainstream media is that the federal government spends only 12% on safety Net program (SNAP, housing assistance, etc) compared to 19% spent on Defense and International security, 24% towards Social Security, 22% on Medicare, CHIP, and also most food assistance recipients are European-American or that most recipients are United States Veterans. What is also never portrayed is that many recipients are physically or developmentally disabled and could never obtain employment although many would want to be independent. It is also not explained that disabled recipients are living on an average of $165 a month for food (about $80 less than a thrifty food budget). Another missing statistic in the food stamp debate is the actual amount of tax dollars that end up in the food assistance program. For example, if I made $50,000 a year, $33 would go to welfare and $895 would go towards corporate subsidies or tax giveaways to corporations and wealthy citizens, which is starkly different than the picture the media paints, and then again, the people who own the media are getting $895 of that tax money, so they have incentive to keep me focused on complaining about where that $33 goes. Let’s keep it real; the media will rather shield facts as the federal spending on SNAP is not the reason why the country is in debt but the media tend to shine light negatively to brain wash the average citizen and misleading us. 

For additional reading, check out the USDA food plans, and consider how much people actually pay for food to what low income people get for food from the SNAP.  See also the research on food prices and actual spending. 

The real problem is often unaffordable housing combined with low wages. Suppose you live in a city on the coasts, or in Chicago, and fair market rents are very high.  And let us imagine you work full-time for $10-$12 per hour.  In such a situation, you will spend a huge amount of your money on your housing, and what is left over may need to pay for transportation and child-care and so forth, and not much will be left for food.  About 14 percent of American households (with 125 million households, this means about 17.5 million households) are food insecure at some point in the year. We know from survey research by the USDA that there are about 1.2 million American households where an adult goes a full day without eating at least three or more times of year because of food insecurity.  Yes, we actually do have real hunger in the United States.  And the food and nutrition we give to families is just as much a benefit to farmers and grocers and agribusiness anyway, but no one ever points this out.  People in the food business would rather sell their products to poor people with the public paying the bill than letting those people go hungry.

  SNAP costs us about $77 billion per year these days, and we spend another 22 billion on school lunches and other child nutrition programs, plus about $6 billion on WIC.  So, that's a total of $105 billion each year.  These are big programs, but they help many people. Each month about 45 million Americans get food with SNAP benefits, and over 30 million children get free or reduced lunches, or other nutritional benefits through various child nutrition programs, mostly provided through school cafeterias.  And then there are another 9 million or so people in families getting benefits from WIC, including nutrition education as well as food. 

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