Twenty Six Lawmakers Take The Food Stamp Challenge

Twenty-six members of Congress will live off of a food stamp budget this week to draw attention to House Republicans cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program’s eligibility requirements already leave out 50 million food insecure households, but another 2 million Americans would lose access to food stamps in the proposed changes for the Farm Bill.

A few months ago Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ took the challenge and Suggested other lawmakers should do the same. When Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton tried the challenge, he found he was “tired” and it was “hard to focus” by day four. “If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant,” he wrote. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who recently participated in the SNAP challenge, found “I’m hungry for five days…I lost six pounds in four days.”

The SNAP challenge means that Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and 25 participating members must try to live off of under $4.50 per day for meals and any beverages.

Lee talked about the tough decisions she made grocery shopping; butter and milk were outside her budget and a McDonalds value menu item will count as her midweek break — in a blog post. “What I’m thinking about most during this trip is that I’m shopping only for myself,” she wrote, comparing the difficult decisions now to when she needed public assistance as a single mother. “When I was a young, single mother, I was on public assistance. It was a bridge over troubled water, and without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I spent hours debating what to buy and what to skip, all the while keeping my sons in my mind.” Many Americans receiving SNAP benefits are under 18 years old and live in working households.

On Wednesday, the participating Democrats chronicled their trips to the grocery store, where they poured over coupons and attempted to buy a week’s worth of food for about $30:

Representative Dale Kildee (D – MI) tweeted: “51 cents to spare. Hardest shopping trip in memory. Two small bags of groceries, not a lot of food.”

Compare these reactions to the arguments made by conservatives, who claim food stamps keep people dependent on the government. “Unfortunately, the rapid growth of this program has only increased dependency on government and added to our federal deficit,” 25 Republican members wrote in a letter Tuesday. Last Thanksgiving, a Fox News host joked she would look “fabulous” on a food stamp diet. Perhaps if one of them tried the challenge, they would not be so quick to judge.

About 40 million Americans (in 18.4 million households) receive food stamps, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in September, using the latest (2010) data.

Among the food stamp recipients 33% (13.4 million) are white, 22% (8.9 million) are black, 16.7% (6.6 million) are Hispanic, and 2.8% (1.1 million) are Asian.

Almost half (47%) of all Americans who receive food stamps are children. Another 8% are elderly. About 20% are disabled. These are not people who have a choice between paychecks and food stamps.

Moreover, there is no contradiction between earning a paycheck and receiving food stamps. Because of the explosion of low-wage jobs in America, many people who work are eligible to receive food stamps. According to the Department of Agriculture report, about five million non-elderly adults who receive food stamps are working. Another 4.4 million are unemployed and looking for work. Millions more have joined the ranks of “discouraged” workers who’ve given up looking for work after months, and in some cases more than a year, of unsuccessful job searches. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the reality that for more than 2½ years, the number of jobless Americans has outstripped the number of available job openings by more than 4 to 1. (Again the latest numbers are from 2010.)

Among those lucky enough to have jobs, more than 10 million Americans are the “working poor,” whose incomes are below the federal poverty line, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Gingrich has a long history of supporting repeal of the minimum wage. An employee who works full time and earns the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would have an annual income $15,080 — not enough to be above the poverty line for a family of three.

I would prefer those who have to make these kinds of decisions to have walked a mile in another person’s shoes. I think if you yourself cannot even try it for a week, you may not be the best qualified to make these important decisions.

Please click here for the US Census Bureau’s Data Input on SNAP Benefits.

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