November 21, 2022

Amid the sales and holiday recipes that dominated the Sunday pages of our local newspaper was an article on how volatile work makes food-insecure families more vulnerable.  According to a new study from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, many low-income families are not getting the food stamps they need because of unpredictable paychecks.  The study found families with more volatile incomes were less likely to access the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because they found it harder to prove eligibility with constantly changing work hours, and this was amplified during the pandemic.  Families whose incomes fluctuate near the eligibility line are about 40% less likely to access food stamps than those whose incomes remain below the threshold.  “SNAP is a good program, but this is clearly a weakness in the program . . . that undermines some of the very households that people would be most interested in trying to help,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who researches SNAP policies.

When I looked online, I found the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the US, formerly the Food Stamp Program, is a federal program that provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people and families.  This program is administered by the US Department of Agriculture, although benefits are distributed by specific departments of the US states.  SNAP is the largest nutrition program and is a key component of the social safety net for low-income Americans.  For most of its history, the program used paper-denominated “stamps” or coupons bound in booklets.  In the late 1990’s, the Food Stamp Program was revamped, and some states switched to a debit card system known as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT).  EBT has been implemented in all states since June 2004.  Each month, SNAP benefits are directly deposited into the household’s EBT account.  Households may use EBT to pay for food at supermarkets, convenience stores, other food retailers, and certain farmers’ markets.  The amount of SNAP benefits received depends on the household’s size, income, and expenses. 

When a family’s monthly income goes down (a parent loses a job), monthly SNAP dollars increase.  When a worker’s paycheck increases (overtime), SNAP is supposed to be reduced.  SNAP recipients must carefully report increases and decreases in their monthly income, but this is harder when your paycheck varies dramatically from one month to the next.  Beneficiaries can also be afraid of making mistakes with their paperwork, as providing false income information can result in staggering fines and lengthy sentences.  In Little Rock, Arkansas, the SNAP application and income verification process was so complicated that nonprofit workers launched a call center in 2020 to help people with the paperwork.  One staff member said hungry residents can feel more demoralized by how many steps they go through just to get food.  Lengthy application processes and administrative backlogs are also a problem elsewhere in the US.

THOUGHTS:  The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a joyful time of holiday parties and family time centered around good food and gifts.  For some, low incomes and food insecurity make this a reminder of their worries.  The financial burden of feeding children and hopes of gift-giving have effects on what families can afford to eat.  The holiday finds 15% of US homes where children are “not very confident” they will afford needed food, and 9% percent are “not at all confident.”  Seniors are also at higher risk for food insecurity, and 60% of seniors choose between buying food or paying their rising utility bills during the cold holiday months.  The high cost of medication and hurdles associated with traveling to a food pantry can compound these trials.  Quality food should be a right, and our responsibility.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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