My SNAP Challenge: Day 4

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Close your eyes.

No, really… close your eyes and visualize what a person who relies on SNAP benefits looks like. How are they dressed? What age group do they belong to? Do they work full or part-time? How educated are they? Somewhere in your mind’s eye, you might have some visual model of what the face of food stamps looks like. Ok, how about this? If you drove to your local grocery store right now and just watched random people walking in and out of it – could you spot which ones were SNAP recipients? Chances are, your accuracy rate would be surprisingly low. It turns out that people who find themselves in hard times look just like you, I or anyone who passes you on the street.

I have been asking people these very same questions and when they think about SNAP recipients, most make the easy leap to the unemployed, the disabled and the homeless. They also most often depict SNAP recipients as having second-hand clothing, poor hygiene and having little to no humility. Truth is, most people would be very surprised to learn who uses SNAP.

Last year, 620,000 households that include at least one soldier, reservist or guardsman – or 25 percent of the nation’s total active duty and reserve personnel – were seeking aid from SNAP, food pantries and other charitable programs across the country. Another 2.37 million households including veterans receive assistance from SNAP and food pantries, too. The help is sought for various reasons, experts say.

One reason for this jump in food-stamp usage among soldiers could be the relatively low pay awarded to junior members of the military, with the least experienced active duty soldiers bringing home a little over $18,300 per year. That would qualify a soldier living in a two-person household for food stamps.

But another significant issue facing military families is a relatively high unemployment rate for spouses, with female spouses between the ages of 18 to 24 suffering from a 30 percent unemployment rate, according to a study published by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. That’s almost three times higher than their civilian cohorts, the study found.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5GqYsbQYnk]

Let’s talk about our struggling older Americans. In the U.S., over 4 million low-income adults over age 60 rely on SNAP to stay healthy and make ends meet. Too many seniors are going hungry. Millions of older Americans are at risk for hunger. In 2014, 9.3 million older Americans faced the threat of hunger, representing 15.3% of all seniors.

Food insecurity is growing among older adults. The food insecurity rate for all senior households was 8.6% in 2012, up from 5.5% in 2001. At the same time, the percentage of seniors facing the threat of hunger has more than doubled. Too few seniors are enrolled in SNAP. 3 out of 5 seniors who qualify for SNAP do not participate. This means that 5.2 million seniors miss out on benefits. Older Americans who qualify for SNAP are significantly less likely to participate in the program than other demographic groups. Several factors contribute to the low participation rate. Many seniors face barriers related to mobility, technology, and stigma and are discouraged by widespread myths about how the program works and who can qualify.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Xbppp0nNkY]

SNAP is the nation’s biggest child nutrition program. SNAP provides families with an estimated 22 million children with resources to purchase a nutritionally adequate diet. This represents close to 1 in 3 children (29 percent) in the United States.  Almost half of all SNAP recipients are children (47 percent), and an additional 26 percent are adults living with children. Forty percent of all SNAP recipients live in households with preschool-age children (ages 4 and below).

Over 70 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children. In 2014, SNAP provided an estimated $51 billion in benefits to families with children, over half of which went to families with preschool-age children. SNAP families are low-income.  A typical family with children that is enrolled in SNAP has income (not including SNAP) at 57 percent of the poverty line.  A typical family with children on SNAP spends close to three-quarters of its income on housing and/or child care costs.

This year, 55% of students in our district qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school. Most of these are also eligible for SNAP at home either today or at various points throughout their primary, middle and high school years.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp05d4aus_U]

The lesson on Day 4 is that SNAP has many faces. Food insecurity can touch any American, anytime, anyplace. Vulnerable children, the elderly and even our men and women protecting our freedom around the globe are recipients of SNAP. You may have an opinion as to whether this is right or wrong, whether policies should change or not, or whether or not we should be doing more to protect our citizens. The debates around this will not soon cease, but there’s no denying that people at or below the poverty line make programs like SNAP a necessity for over 46 million people in this country. If this makes you angry, Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Lack of livable wages in many jobs within both the private and public sectors, an expanding universe of Americans needing a safety net and the difficult road to finding affordable access to preventative healthcare programs all have a causal effect of the difficulties that many people experience today.

The mosaic of faces that depict those benefiting from SNAP is comprised of people from every walk of life and until we begin to address the basic socio-economic variables that devalue people and rob them of their dignity – we will continue to be in a position where we will have to fill the gap so that individuals and families don’t fall through the cracks. This means changing paradigms and perspectives in a way that shifts funding of SNAP from entitlements to investments. Food insecurity should always be temporary.

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