Ramen noodles again? For millions on U.S. food stamps, 'This is not the way I envisioned my life'

Yahoo News

 

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An example of the food the Warrick family buys with its monthly food stamp assistance.

Ria Warrick has read her friends’ online posts about Americans on food stamps. For instance:

Government irony: They say not to feed the bears at national parks because it makes them dependent.

Or:

Someday I hope to be able to afford a new iPhone ... like the girl in front of me with the food stamps.

Warrick’s friends don’t know they’re griping about her.

The 37-year-old married mom in Medford, Ore., has received food-stamp assistance of some sort for 18 years. “They were real paper stamps back then,” Warrick notes — and she says those comments hurt.

“These people — my friends — who post these have no idea we receive government help every month, and I've been too ashamed to tell them,” Warrick writes in a first-person account published on Yahoo News this week. “It makes me so angry they lump us all together. Yes, there are those taking advantage of benefits, but not everybody does. Some of us really do need the help until we get on our feet.”

That may happen soon. The Warricks’ financial life is on the mend, so their current $340 in benefits will be reduced to $323 next month.

And that’s a good thing, she says.

“I'm really excited we are on our way to self-sufficiency,” Warrick says. “I've taken the class offered by the Job Council about those who become dependent on food stamps, and I've learned ways to help us feel OK about spending cash on food. It's all part of breaking free and becoming independent.”

For now, though, her family’s $1,500 monthly income necessitates aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — colloquially called food stamps — and precludes them from shoveling out $600 a month for child care for their 2-year-old daughter, Aleyah, a sum Warrick says “can be a bit steep when trying to balance a budget.” An added difficulty is her husband’s atypical autism, which has made it tough to find and keep a job.

The Warricks’ story isn’t rare. Nearly 48 million Americans, or about 1 in 7 of us, collect SNAP assistance, an increase of about 1 million from June 2012 to June 2013. Shortly after that jump, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to slash $40 billion in food stamps over 10 years, a cut 10 times larger than what the Senate proposed.

Meanwhile, enrollment doubled and costs ($78 billion in 2012) tripled over the last decade, Reuters says. Americans on SNAP receive, on average, $1.47 per meal. (Access to SNAP’s data and website is shuttered during the government shutdown, but because it has dedicated funding, its payments — like some Social Security and Medicaid — are unaffected. Some state-run sites still operate.)

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Warrick's 2-year-old daughter, Aleyah.

SNAP’s critics say that when families like the Warricks buy groceries, that assistance doesn’t stimulate the economy because, as the conservative Heritage Foundation argues, $100 of tax-subsidized food stamps pulls money from a private sector that would have better spent those hundred bucks. Other concerns are myriad: Food stamps should be stop-gap assistance, not long-term entitlements. The country is already $17 trillion in debt, so why spend more? And then there’s fraud, notably millionaires on the dole.

Supporters’ rebuttals include: Food purchases provide direct kicks to the economy because the poor spend and don’t save. There are even more hungry Americans than the 1 in 7 on SNAP. And, last year, more than 18 percent in this country said there were days they couldn’t afford the food they needed.

Warrick, one of several food-stamp recipients who shared stories with Yahoo News this week, knows how pricey that food is. Her budget for her family of three is stretched. “Have you noticed food prices lately?” she asks rhetorically. “I mean, really noticed?”

She says preparing a fresh, healthy dinner for her family of three costs $20, four times more than a pizza. So they live on macaroni and cheese, sandwiches, spaghetti and canned vegetables — cheaper but less healthy meals that run about $2 to $3 each. (Her homemade enchilada recipe, at about $15 a meal, is often out of the question.)

“Healthy food is outrageously expensive now,” Warrick says. But tougher are the looks from some checkout clerks at her local Albertson’s: “Some of them understand, some don't care, but there are some who will actually glare at me, their friendly chatter turning to snappy remarks.”

She backs drug-testing for recipients and knows there is fraud. She recently noticed one online post she supports: "If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and tattoos then you don't need food stamps or welfare."

But for her family, Warrick pleads: “Stop judging those who bring out the SNAP benefit card at checkout, please don't. They may just be one of the good guys.”

Here are more stories from recipients:

‘I would give anything to work’

Six months ago, when Shauna Silva began feeling “excruciating” pain in her lower back, she had to quit her job as a certified nursing assistant. An MRI revealed degenerative disc disorder in her lumber 4 and 5 regions, and she can’t sit, stand or walk for more than 30 minutes at a time.

“On a good day, I am in moderate pain,” Silva, 30, of Waterbury, Conn., writes. “Other days, I am in severe pain. I have sought treatment, but nothing has helped me.”

She turned to Medicaid and food stamps in May and now receives $185 in benefits — a high amount, she says, because her celiac disease requires a gluten-free diet. When she can shop, she buys a standard grocery list: quinoa flakes, coffee, milk, eggs, meat, rice, tea, fruit, frozen vegetables, potatoes, condiments and oil. The gluten-free items — cereal ($4), yogurt ($2), waffle mix ($6) — set her back, though.

 

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An example of lunch items bought with Silva's food stamps.

SNAP was a last resort, she says, and she’d “give anything to work.” Her relatives can’t help because they’re struggling, too.

“Some constantly judge Americans who rely on SNAP, assuming we ‘chose’ this lifestyle because we do not want to work,” Silva says. “They see us as ‘lazy,’ buying caviar and booze with our food stamps. While there are those who break the rules, for sure, there are honest recipients like me who follow them.”

Don’t cut assistance for the honest, she argues. Rather, cull the bad apples by making rules stricter. She says: “Some Americans actually need temporary assistance and have no other options.”

‘Like a failure and a loser’

At about $1.28 a meal to spend, Tim E. Bush usually opts for microwavable meals or sandwiches, as long as there’s a coupon handy. But, often, it’s ramen noodles again. They’re less than a buck. He prefers fruits and vegetables, but he says eating healthy, while not impossible, isn’t as easy as eating cheaply.

“I'm a health-conscious person, at least I would be,” the 31-year-old Philadelphian says.

An artist, Bush works every day and earns about $900 a month while caring for his 55-year-old mom, who is disabled. He receives $119 a month in food-stamp benefits.

“Some view artists as broke and poor already,” Bush says. “To think that others might also consider me a strain on the system because I am on SNAP makes me even more stressed.”

 

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Bush's typical meal: a $1 to $2 microwavable meal.

On stamps for six years, Bush also receives Social Security disability because he’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Every time I pull out that card to buy food and wait in line for the machine to process, I feel like I stand out as less than an equal. Less than I want to be. Like a failure and a loser,” Bush says. “I don't want to be thought of this way. If I were able to, and it was up to me, I would not be in the system at all.”

‘This is not the way I envisioned my life’

From February 2001 to November 2004, Marie Green earned about $2,400 a month while caring for two kids, including an autistic son. After she lost her job in the medical field, she went on unemployment and now receives $367.40 a month to feed her and her daughter, 21-year-old Jo. (Her son, Quentin, 17, and her mother receive separate disability or retirement benefits.)

It’s difficult to make $367.40 last a month. Green, of Hawthorne, Calif., says they regularly run out of staples like bread, butter and milk, while they save enough to spread their cereal, eggs and meat to the end of the month.

“Everything else goes really quickly,” says Green, 41, who frets that her family’s nutrition suffers. “But I worry most about their going hungry. There have been times I have given one of the kids the rest of my dinner or will just have a bowl of cereal for dinner so they can have whatever is left that I haven't eaten.”

She says she’s “tried like hell” to secure work in the medical billing field, but because she’s not bilingual or because she can’t find scheduling flexibility to help her care for her son, she’s can’t land a job. She’s also applied to stores like Blockbuster, McDonald’s, Kmart and Target but is repeatedly told she has too much education.

“I do want to work,” Green says, “and I know I'm not the only one.”

 

 

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Green's inexpensive list: pasta salad mix, milk, bulk rice, ramen noodles and tuna fish.

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