Wednesday, January 12, 2011

hot or cold

Today I as I stood in line for coffee at the deli counter of the bodega down the street, I noticed a helpful handwritten sign announcing "No EBT currently".

There's just one problem: there was nothing at the deli counter that one could legitimately use EBT for. Ever. Even when their cash register was working. One of the food stamps rules is that you can't use them to buy "hot, prepared foods". Thus I could buy a jug of cold apple cider, but not a cup of it warm, and the same sandwich which I could not (legally) buy warm would be no problem cold and wrapped in plastic. Bodega owners skirt this regulation by ringing up warm sandwiches or other prepared foods as produce.

The sign brought up some sticky questions that I've been rolling around for the last couple weeks, since my most recent classist-comment-from-a-foodie encounter. A well-off self-confessed "food movement" member, upon hearing about my work, asked me if I saw a lot of people trying to defraud the food stamps system. The short answer (and the one I gave her) is that I see far more clients who aren't receiving the full amount they're entitled to (never mind enough to feed their families), than I do people trying to use the system.

But is there stretching of the truth? Yes. Are household arrangements reported so as to receive the most food stamps? Sometimes.

Does that bother me? I'll be honest - not really. Why? Because for every person I know will be less than completely truthful about their situation in the social services offices, there are several whose honest circumstances would get them hundreds of $$ a month who refuse to go because of how they've been treated or because of the stigma attached, even in parts of this working class community, to receiving government benefits. Because I've seen very few people with the means to actually, adequately cover their needs get excited enough about a few extra $$ for food to even attempt the whole ordeal. And because I'm much more bothered by the fraud perpetrated by some of the world's wealthiest individuals across the East River than a hundred dollars here or there for groceries.

Is this entirely consistent? No, maybe not.



  1. Hey Sarah,
    I have a story that's been on my mind lately that relates to your post.
    Some of my family members recently began the process of doing a "short sale" on their house thanks to a government program started during the recession aimed at preventing people from being foreclosed on. They had bought a condo with an adjustable-rate mortgage and then the housing market collapsed and they owed way more than the condo was worth. The rate was set to be adjusted next year, and they didn't know how much higher it'd be, which understandably made them nervous. However, they were in no danger at all of losing the condo. They make plenty of money to afford the mortgage payments, and even if it spiked quite a bit, they still wouldn't be at risk of losing it. But, in order to make the short sale work, they stopped making payments on the condo and hired a lawyer to help them negotiate with the bank. They even eventually found themselves having to write letters about their poor economic circumstances which went beyond misleading. Though the short sale hasn't been finalized, they're now renting a house twice as big as their condo.
    This episode was very hard for me at first. It seemed so hypocritical in an upper-middle class family that casually blames immigrants or single moms whenever they stretch the truth for any government assistance. I had a long talk with my mom about it though, and got over judging them. And she was able to see that it's not so unreasonable when people stretch the truth for more grocery money. In fact, many of us would do the same thing. How can we know we wouldn't?

  2. Hey Sarah,
    One more thing. Hunger has other hidden costs to society that aren't normally accounted for and end up far outweighing the cost of food stamps.
    There's was a great piece in The Atlantic a few months ago by Raj Patel that cited some recent research that attempted to calculate the social costs of hunger. It turns out that SNAP is a bargain. So that definitely shapes how I feel about people stretching the truth to get more benefits. Here's the link if you're interested;