Glitches in the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system caused major problems for recipients of food stamps over the weekend in 17 states. The problems began on Saturday when Xerox, the company responsible for running the system, experienced “technical difficulties” during a “routine test” of its backup systems. In some cases, EBT beneficiaries were unable to use their cards. In others, the spending limit on the cards was removed, allowing EBT users to purchase as much as they wanted.
As typical with any big breaking news story, the internet was flooded with comments and conversation about the matter, and much of the storm was filled with anger at people who receive any kind of government assistance in getting food at all. It seems that the Reagan era myth of the “welfare queen” still lives and breathes along with many other myths about food stamps in America. Sadly, it seems many folks get their information about poverty from John Galt’s ghost. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the top myths about food stamps in America:
1) No one receiving food stamps has a job. The myth that all food stamp recipients are unemployed, lazy and/or don’t want to work is probably the most pervasive of all myths. As of 2010 however, 41% of Americans on food stamps lived in households with earnings. According to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, thanks to high unemployment rates and the recession, having a job hasn’t been enough to keep families out of poverty. Thanks to major corporations like Walmart (America’s largest private sector employer) keeping wages and hours down for employees, many are forced to turn to food stamps to provide for their families.
2) Federal spending on food stamps is out of control, and recipients get a “free ride” off the money from taxpayers. Funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in FY2012 was nearly $80 billion. While that’s a huge chunk of change, it’s still small potatoes compared to the full federal budget, which crested $3 trillion. The part of the pie cut out for SNAP spending comes under “safety net programs,” which amounts to $412 billion, or 12 percent of the federal budget. Food stamp spending makes up about 1/5th of that 12 percent, with programs like refundable portions of the earned income tax credit, child care assistance, low income housing assistance and more. Meanwhile, the bulk of the budget still goes to the Defense Department, Social Security and Medicaid. Additionally, major corporations continue to go unnoticed as some of the biggest federal welfare recipients. The federal Joint Committee on Taxation estimates corporations could receive some $154 billion in special tax breaks in 2013, nearly twice what the government spends on food for its most vulnerable citizens.
3) “Personal responsibility” will end hunger. Victim blaming and poverty go hand in hand, and one of the most frequent talking points trotted out is that welfare in any form creates dependency. Why would anyone even look for work when they can just eat free, right? First, more than 3/4’s of SNAP households include a child, person with a disability or senior citizen. Second, the average recipient receives about $133 a month, which translates to $1.48 per meal. Third, a magic fountain of jobs available to anyone and everyone who wants one simply doesn’t exist. Figures from the Bureau of Labor of Labor and Statistics released during the summer showed for every one job opening available, there were 3.1 people competing for it. All of that however, is shadowed by the assumption that any kind of service provided by government creates a culture of dependency. Dave Johnson at Alternet puts it best:
“Does the government service of bringing water to your house make you dependent on not taking a bucket down to the stream or something? Does a road make you dependent on not walking your donkey through the woods to town?”
4) Everyone on food stamps is gaming the system, living in luxury because someone somewhere had a nice pair of shoes. The “welfare queen,” a myth that’s somehow stayed at the forefront of the conversation on poverty in America ever since Reagan popularized it in the late 70’s, simply won’t go away. Despite the obvious racist and classist nature of the myth, it somehow makes its way into nearly every conversation about SNAP recipients, usually in the form of a personal anecdote, often at least one or two steps removed from the source. Someone somewhere in a grocery store checkout line happens to be wearing a piece of jewelry, drives off the parking lot in a “nice” car, or God forbid, has something other than boxes of macaroni in their shopping cart.
This is probably one of the most difficult myths to dispel, because it requires both nuanced thinking and first hand experience. First, it assumes that someone swiping an EBT card has been or will be receiving the benefit for an extended period of time. According to Feeding America there are already “strict” limitations for unemployed persons in place. Furthermore, the organization’s Director of Nutrition Assistance and Budget Policy Sophie Milam told Salon last year the average length of time of a participant is about eight to nine months.
The majority of people incensed that a person on food stamps might also own a cell phone seem to fail to realize that things which may not have been considered “necessities” (or even used widely) in 1976 are actually necessities today. In many cases, items like prepaid cell phones are simply quicker and more cost effective options than a land line, things like job searching happen over the internet more than with a pen and paper, the list goes on. Moreover, unless one actually knows the person they’re scowling at in line, they have no way of knowing when or how said person ended up where they’re at. Too many people are ready to assume someone swiping a SNAP card doesn’t need it the assistance based on hearsay or no evidence at all. This piece at Addicting Info says it all:
“Be sure to sell all your worldly goods, even if you have to take a financial loss (because poor people don’t deserve anything nice, right? and it is your job to assume that they spent “your” money on anything that isn’t completely crappy, correct?) and never buy anything but the bare essentials while you are at it, too.”
While the system might be working again, it’s a sad reality a huge swath of people will continue to believe and repeat the myths recycled through the media. The fact is, if we’re going to get out of the economic mess we’ve been in for decades, spitting on the already disenfranchised is the last thing anyone should do.