Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Personal Reflections on growing up in poverty, and the penalties for selling SNAP benefits

A student is outraged by the penalties for selling SNAP benefits for cash in this reaction essay:

In response to the book “$2.00 a Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America”, I read about several different families living in poverty that hit close to home for me. I was born and raised in the John Hay Homes (the projects) until about the 5th grade. At that time we moved up from public housing to Section 8 and moved into really nice house on the east side of town. My mother was a single mother of four children and there were tough times. I remember getting food from food banks and busting food stamps at Mr. B’s, a grocery store that was right across the street from our house so my mom could by cash products (cigarettes, toiletries, etc.). My mom worked full time at a local shelter. Her employment not only provided a stable income for our family, but also a link to other resources that were available to the less fortunate in our community. We did not have much, but we made do with what we had, and we were happy kids. I can recall many good memories coming up poor. One memory that makes me smile and giggle the most is remembering how my siblings and I always looked forward to Mama’s pay day! My Mom would let us choose between the restaurants that were in walking distance of our house (we had no vehicle) Hardees, Chili Den, or Popeye’s. We always had something to look forward to. Those were the days!

I do not have actual knowledge of my mother selling her paper food stamps to make ends meet back then, but I do know it was—and is—a common practice both then and now, so I really would not be surprised if she did this. To be honest, even though I grew up in a community that sells and buys SNAP, I never really knew the reasons why mothers chose to sell their food stamps/SNAP. Like most, I assumed most did it for entertainment purposes (alcohol, drugs, etc). It never crossed my mind until reading “$2.00 a Day”, that many families did this because they had no cash incomes. My mother was blessed to have full time employment, but many were not. Without selling their food stamps/SNAP how would a family live month to month paying for toiletries, gas, or utilities with no income? Talk about a wake up call!

With this light bulb being turned on imagine the anger I felt reading “ least in terms of the letter of the law, when Jennifer sells her SNAP, she risks a far longer prison term than the one Jose was subject to for molesting Kaitlin.” I never knew until playing the trivia game in class that a person who sells their SNAP benefits can face up to 20 years in prison. THAT IS RIDICULOUS!!! 20 years in prison for trying to provide for your family. That is one law that needs to be changed.

I think the laws on the books in the State of Illinois for punishing SNAP recipients for selling their benefits offer evidence of institutional racism.  Selling SNAP benefits is clearly a trivial offense, and ought to be a misdemeanor, but it can cary a 20-year prison sentence, the same as attempted murder with the consequence of permanent injury to the person one tried to murder. Why would the legislators impose such a penalty (a potential penalty, which I don't think is actually meted out in the real world) on poor persons?  I suggest it must have something to do with the perception that SNAP recipients are disproportionally likely to be African-American or Hispanic.  There is also a general sense of "hatred of paupers" in our society, where persons who are poor are viewed as failures and worthless, which must certainly inform the decision-making of law-makers who decide to impose a potential 20-year prison sentence for the infraction of selling SNAP benefits.

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