Monday, March 6, 2017

When I Was on Food Stamps

Over 40 million Americans receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. I'm glad our country has this safety net for low-income families, but I hope never to qualify again.

In addition to earning a low income (amount varies according to the number, age, and disability status of the family members), eligible households can only own $2250 in countable resources, or $3250 if at least one person is over 60 or disabled. Most states exclude a home, vehicle(s), and a retirement pension as countable resources. But still, $2250-$3250 is not much of an asset these days.

We've all heard stories of rampant welfare and food-stamp fraud. I read that at one time, approximately 4% of claims were fraudulent; now the number has been reduced to about 1%. That still leaves millions of people truly in need of assistance.

In the mid 1970s, I was pushed out of my job in Houston, Texas, and filed for unemployment. Someone suggested I apply for food stamps as well. I was happy for any help I could get.

I had to make an appointment at my closest Department of Human Resources office, a 20-mile drive from my apartment. (Now many states allow you to apply online.) Although they'd given me a list of what I needed to bring to the interview—copies of every bill I owed, canceled rent checks, bank statements, proof of unemployment claim, etc.—it wasn't quite good enough, because after I arrived, they decided there was one more paper I needed. They were unable to proceed with my application, so we had to schedule a follow-up interview when all of my documentation was in order.

When I slinked out of the office, humiliated that I couldn't even follow simple government instructions, I ran into a guy I knew from college. We'd worked together part-time on the University of Houston campus as French language tutors. Now he was employed as a social worker at the Texas Department of Human Resources. And I was a client applying for food stamps. I'd hoped he hadn't recognized me, but no such luck.

When I finally got my application approved, I received, by mail, an authorization card to purchase $50 worth of food stamps for $37. These days, one might be able to save that much on groceries by using coupons and loyalty cards! I had to redeem my authorization card and pay my $37 in person at a different office—fortunately, no one I knew worked there—also about 20 miles away from my apartment, in order to collect my $50 booklet of food stamps. Now recipients are given a SNAP card that blends in like an ordinary credit or debit card, so they're not as conspicuous in public.

And of course, there were restrictions about what one could buy with food stamps. There still are, as one of the goals of the program is to promote good nutrition. On my first trip to the grocery store using food stamps, I made the mistake of including in my purchases a bag of dry kibble for my pet kitten. "Ma'am, you can't buy cat food with food stamps!" screamed the cashier. The customers behind me in line—and at the other registers—glared at me like I was a criminal. I just knew someone would slap on the handcuffs at any moment.

Fortunately, I was only on food stamps that one month. The Texas Employment Commission offered me a temporary job in their office, which I couldn't very well turn down and expect to continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits. Workers in the temp program were encouraged to test for other state government jobs, and I soon got an offer from the Texas Department of Human Resources.

The next time I saw my old college friend, I was in training to become a social worker, just like him. And I was helping other people get food stamps.

What are your thoughts on public assistance programs? I'd love to hear your comments.

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