The SNAP Stigma

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Upfront

Challenging the stereotypes around welfare benefits

Gwyneth Paltrow sent out a Tweet on April 9 feeding into a large time-held debate on programs that provide government aid. Paltrow had purchased $29 worth of food, as would have been allotted to her for weekly grocery money, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps in everyday discussion. Paltrow announced this purchase in honor of The SNAP Challenge, which was originally created as the #FoodBankNYCChallenge by Mario Batali. Batali served as an Honorary Chair and Board member at the Food Bank for New York City’s latest Can Do Awards.

Paltrow broke on the fourth day of the challenge and discussed the results on her newsletter, Goop. Paltrow made a point to connect her disappointment to women’s low wages. “Many hardworking mothers are being asked to do the impossible: Feed their families on a budget which can only support food businesses that provide low-quality food,” Paltrow wrote.

The piece is one recent example of many privileged attempts at filtering the experiences of those in poverty to an understandable level. Paltrow has been criticized by numerous news outlets, from Time to ThinkProgress, for her participation in the challenge and its social repercussions. ThinkProgress discussed how Paltrow’s challenge would have been problematic beyond the capacity of what food she purchased. It went on to say issues facing SNAP recipients, including public transportation and limited time to prepare meals, were not represented in a challenge done by such a celebrity.

SNAP and other government aid programs have been the subjects of stereotyping and social misinformation in more than just this latest well-meaning challenge. This stereotyping and misinformation has bled into our culture to the point where recipients of SNAP and other aid programs fear their personal circumstances being misrepresented to the public.

Justina Ireland, an author with family history in SNAP, has experienced this on a personal level.

“From about the age of 16 until I left home at 19, my family was on SNAP benefits,” Ireland said. “My mother was actually on full cash assistance, but food stamps — they used to actually be those awful paper coupons — were part of our benefits package.”

Growing up in a SNAP household, and seeing others use it led Ireland to perceive the stereotypes presented around her. Stereotyping and shifts in behavior, from professionals and private people alike, is often directly related to someone revealing they require assistance from SNAP.

“I’ve seen it first-hand in line when someone pulls out their access card and I’ve experienced it myself,” Ireland said. “It isn’t fun…especially when people already know you’re broke, yet getting food stamps makes you something of a pariah.”

The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service served 46,536,000 people in 2014 with SNAP. Each of those individuals received, on average, $125.35 dollars per month in benefits. In New York State, SNAP worked with 3,170,465 people on average per month in 2013. SNAP and other government aid programs provide benefits for a substantial amount of people within each state.

A traditional nuclear family in the United States has four people in its household. To qualify for SNAP, a four-person U.S. household must have an average gross monthly income of $2,584 or less. This means the average income of the household before taxes and eligible deductions must be $31,008 or less per year for the family to qualify for SNAP benefits. Once allowable deductions like legally owed child support payments and shelter costs for some homeless households are factored in, the household has to make $23,856 or less to qualify for SNAP benefits. This threshold net income amount accounts for 100 percent of the households considered to be in poverty within the U.S.

Rebecca*, a stay-at-home mom in upstate New York with a family on SNAP benefits, said she felt similarly to Ireland in regard to the perceptions placed on those who receive SNAP benefits.

“I was raised by conservative people who loved the bootstraps sentiment, so I grew up hearing that food stamp/welfare families were lazy moochers, drug addicts, bums, etc. I think I thought this was isolated thinking just among Republicans and conservatives until I got out there in the world a little more,” Rebecca said.

However, she said in her experience, the negative perceptions are not limited to political leanings.

“I’ve heard liberal-leaning [people] express the same beliefs…maybe phrased nicer, but the same thinking,” Rebecca continued. “Among liberal people, they tend to think SNAP people are ‘stupid’ more than lazy. Or both. Or they lack motivation, don’t understand the power of positive thinking, or are just uneducated. I’ve been told, ‘You’re too smart to be poor.’”

Rebecca runs a website called Poor as Folk, a professional space in which she discusses having a family on SNAP and therefore a U.S. household considered to be in poverty. Her personal hands-on experience discussing SNAP online has shown the stereotypes of laziness, lack of education and lack of motivation hold a racial bent to them as well.

“I’ve been blogging for the past few years about poverty/food insecurity with some emphasis on SNAP,” she said. “It’s opened my eyes to the racist perceptions many hold. I have been mistaken for a woman of color many times solely because I have said I get SNAP. The racial slurs and racial-based harassment said to me online are pretty common. The statistics don’t support this myth that people of color are primary recipients.”

The racial breakdown of SNAP is based on individual reporting of race. A Pew Research survey found that 15 percent of adults who have ever received SNAP identified as white. While recipients like Rebecca can identify as white, the racial associations with the SNAP stereotypes are pervasive whenever the identity of the SNAP user, like Rebecca, has an online profile with no distinguishing information. The self-reporting of race among SNAP participants means the racial data of the program is subject to individual interpretations and desires, all of which can be affected by the stereotypes associated with SNAP.

Programs like SNAP are government aid programs and thus subject to regulations in their practice, as well as the variability of those in the government. Those who work to provide these programs are just as subject to view the recipients through the lens of stereotypes.

“My experiences with the programs themselves have been fine,” Ireland said. “Like any government program, it’s administered by overworked, underpaid civil servants who have become apathetic to most everyone’s plight.”

“I helped a co-worker fill out the paperwork when I worked at Target, and she confided ‘I’m really scared people are going to think I’m lazy.’ In the end, she was more worried about feeding her kids,” Ireland added.

Rebecca’s experiences reveal a similar insight into the attitudes of the government workers administering SNAP.

“In another county we lived in for a bit, the case workers were awful and the input I’ve gotten is that this isn’t rare,” she said. “I’ve never felt so humiliated and dehumanized. It’s terrible… when you desperately need help, you can’t just walk out because you were treated badly and never go back. You have to put up [with] it in order to get help.

“In Tompkins County, the workers are helpful, courteous and compassionate,she continued. “I hear this is the exception rather than the rule. In other parts of the country, some SNAP recipients will go the entire duration of their assistance without ever speaking to an actual worker.”

Her online blog has also led Rebecca to communicating with other SNAP recipients through providing them with essential information about the program. Though much of the information is also available on the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website, it is also the job of caseworkers to administer information to SNAP recipients.

“The most read posts on my blog are posts that inform SNAP recipients what they can and cannot buy with their [Electronic Benefits Transfers] and other practical info about the program. The feedback I get is that this is the only source they have since caseworkers are unreachable,” she said.

While the variance in caseworkers and their perception of SNAP recipients is a major factor in how the program is administered, the way the government handles, distributes and constructs the benefits of SNAP is just as variant. For instance, SNAP defines eligible foods based on The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008. From the SNAP website: “The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (the Act) defines eligible food as any food or food product for home consumption and also includes seeds and plants which produce food for consumption by SNAP households.”

The construction of this allows for a broad range of foods to be eligible on the program, but does include hot foods, medicines, or vitamins and supplements. Because of the average amount of benefits given per person per household, it is often unlikely that SNAP recipients can purchase healthy foods because of their pricing. This definition of food allots for “junk food” as per the website, which means that SNAP recipients can purchase the food, but the lack of vitamin and supplement eligibility means that SNAP recipients cannot supplement their lack of affordable health food options with vitamins.

SNAP and the stereotype of lacking education on nutritional eating are more connected than this disparity. Frequently, different programs will provide nutritional education in the hopes SNAP households will make better choices. Rebecca, a former worker at Head Start, saw this with the program’s administrators reacting to low workshop attendance on topics like budgeting and healthy eating.

“They assumed that not enough families cared about nutrition,” Rebecca said. “I had a light bulb moment one day when casually talking to a few parents about gardening and food. Many low-income families don’t need cooking or nutrition classes because they already know what they need to know. It’s widely assumed the lack of nutrition in low-income families stems from lack of education. It seems more likely to me now that they already know how to cook and eat healthy — they just don’t have the food budget to make it happen.”

Currently, there is a movement in several states to reintroduce a 3-month limit for 2016 on unemployed benefits for adults ages 18 to 50 not considered to be disabled or raising minor children. Those in SNAP that meet these qualifications have an average gross income of about $2,200 a year, which is 19 percent of the poverty line. This is in comparison to the gross income of 58.5 percent of the poverty line for the average household on SNAP. The Government Accountability Office has also found that those in the affected demographics are more likely than other SNAP recipients to have the reading, writing and basic math skills important for jobs, creating an even more difficult experience for these adults to move out of unemployment and attempt to create sufficient food budgets for their households.

Stereotyping SNAP and other government aid programs as programs for those who are lazy and uneducated creates an environment where society, program administrators and lawmakers take away necessary benefits and opportunities for those in poverty to stay afloat. Ireland expressed this sentiment when sharing her first-hand experience with SNAP stereotyping and its dangerous implications.

“Everyone has to find a way to survive,” she said. “We have a lot of hungry people in this country. Without SNAP we would have a lot more.”

*Source did not wish to disclose her last name.


John Jacobson is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major who thinks Gwyneth needs to get off the internet. You can email them at jjacobs1@ithaca.edu.

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