A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported on a study from Washington University in St. Louis that found that nearly half of all U.S. children (and 90% of African-American children) will be on food stamps “at some point during childhood, and fallout from the current recession could push those numbers even higher.”
Food stamps are a Department of Agriculture program for low-income individuals and families, covering most foods although not prepared hot foods or alcohol. For a family of four to be eligible, their annual take-home pay can't exceed about $22,000.
According to a USDA report released last month, 28.4 million Americans received food stamps in an average month in 2008, and about half were younger than age 18. The average monthly benefit per household totaled $222.
The lead author of the study, Mark Rank, said that his work suggests that most people know a family that has received or will receive food stamps.
In Detroit, these numbers are not surprising. With a high participation rate in federal assistance programs amongst those who are eligible (92% for food stamps, in fact), it’s likely that you would know more than a few families who have received food stamps.
For Operation Frontline, close to 80% of our participants are eligible for federal assistance programs. This means that every one of them is on a tight budget and is looking for tips on how to feed a family inexpensively.
My Experience as an AmeriCorps
Before working with Operation Frontline, I (Diana) had never been on any kind of federal assistance. As a kid, my family struggled through tough times – my mom worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. We lived in a slightly conservative area, so because of the stigma associated with food stamps and my family’s pull-yourself-from-the-bootstraps mentality, we refused to receive help from anyone, including the government.
As an AmeriCorps member, however, I’m beginning to experience how difficult it is to budget when there is little to go around. (A note: Because the AmeriCorps year is considered a year of service, we receive a yearly salary of $11,100.)
Encouraged from our national office to apply for food stamps, I finished the application in early September. It took six weeks from the time I applied to the moment I received my benefits. In that time, my car broke down, requiring $800 in repairs. The second most expensive thing I own – my computer – also broke down, requiring $100 in repairs.
I’m lucky to have had friends and family to help me through this time, but I realized how vulnerable those of low income are to any spontaneous change. $900 was almost a month’s income for me, and yet, I was forced to pay it because my job requires it, and the city I live in lacks an adequate public transportation system.
If this situation were to happen to me as a single mom trying to feed my kids, I would not have been able to wait six weeks for assistance. I would need that money for food and depend on it every month.
This is oftentimes the situation that our participants are in. Between rent, utilities, and those spontaneous problems that arise, food can be farther down on the list of priorities than maybe it should be. I’ve heard many people say that they have to choose between paying the utility bill and paying for medications. Maybe one month they’ll worry about eating well, but the next month they have to pay their landlord.
For me, receiving a small salary was a choice. The opportunity to work for Gleaners and to serve the community was something that I valued more than getting a large paycheck. For our participants, it’s never a choice to constantly be in that dangerous balance, where the scale can be tipped so easily.
For those of you who volunteer with OFL or work with an organization that serves low-income populations, this vulnerability may be an important thing to keep in mind. I can’t say that I’m a spokesperson for the poor, so I encourage you to look at these resources to continue thinking about this issue:
- The Food Stamp Diet, an article in the Reno News & Review
- Understanding Poverty in America
- Less is Enough, an amazing blog by a woman who lives on a $1 a day for food for 30 days, and does it right
- One Dollar Diet Project, a blog by a couple who also try to live on $1 a day for food, who don't do as well