I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about the stereotype of the “fat poor”. You know the right-wing slur: if we’re so broke, how come so many of us are overweight? It’s just another way of claiming that being poor is our own damn fault and has NOTHING to do with, like, an income distribution system heavily shewed toward the top. In an article in the Lifestyle section (“Lifestyle”, for chrissake) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Phuong Cat Le writes that decent food is often out of reach of the poor price-wise, especially if they’re on food stamps.
A researcher compared food prices in Seattle’s Rainier Valley and Queen Anne neighborhoods and found that a family of four living on the maximum allowable amount of food stamps can barely afford the basics here.
Jamillah Jordan, a fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center in Washington, D.C., shopped for groceries — apples, potatoes, bagels, corn flakes, macaroni, canned peaches, ground turkey and other items — and discovered what those on limited incomes know well: Even the basics cost families a little more than food stamp benefits allow.
“Nutrition is important, but it’s really a matter of economics,” said Jordan, who has been working on the Grocery Gap Project with Solid Ground, a Seattle non-profit. “People were telling us, ‘If I can’t afford a nutritious diet, I’m not going to buy it’ … If people simply can’t afford that, what does that do to their health?”
What you’d think: it hurts. I am not on food stamps but I don’t make very much above the current minimum wage and even though I live alone except for the cats (two, and they’re cheap enough), trying to eat well consistently is almost impossible. If I take home, say, $200/wk on average, my rent – one of the cheapest places I could find – takes $150 of that. That leaves only $50/wk for everything else. I often shop for absolute minimums of basic stuff, just barely enough to get me through the week, and I still spend about $40 of that $50.
To come in under the wire, I have to buy the cheapest of everything I can find, and “cheap” usually means unhealthy, mass-processed food full of starch and sugar. It’s because of this that despite the fact that I often only eat two meals a day (and they’re not large meals, anything but), try to cut the amount of starch and bulk I consume, and exercise constantly, I’m still some 25lbs overweight.
Part of that excess weight is a direct result of being poor. It’s the way the body operates: when you can’t eat regularly and there are long spaces between meals – say, 12 hours, which is not uncommon in my case – the body thinks it’s about to starve and creates more fat with the calories it gets. Smaller meals spread through the whole day is better but it’s a luxury that today’s work schedules often don’t allow. I know people who work at the local Wal-Mart, for example, who may not get a break for 6 or 7 hours, and when they do it’s for 10 mins, barely time to gulp down a sandwich before they have to get back on the floor.
On top of that is a legacy of tricks played on the welfare system for the past 40 years by its conservative opponents. In the case of food stamps, Jordan explains how they figure what’s “enough” – and their figuring doesn’t include prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets food stamp benefits for a half-million people in this state — and 26 million nationwide — by pricing items in its Thrifty Food Plan, a basket of food intended to provide a nutritious diet at a low cost. Benefits change monthly based on inflation.
Someone who doesn’t receive the maximum food stamp benefit can’t afford to eat healthfully in Seattle, Jordan said. A family of four could receive a maximum monthly benefit of $525.60 in food stamps, but the reality is most don’t, she said. The average household benefit was $183.38 month in Washington last year, below the national average of $213.91.
Jordan says the Thrifty Food Plan allowance is based on “unrealistic criteria” and doesn’t take into account regional differences in food costs. (emphasis added)
Many conservatives assume in their criticism that all the families on food stamps are getting the maximum amount the law allows but they’re not. In Washington, the average is less than half the maximum, and there are states where that average is even lower. I can barely feed myself on $180/mnth, I can’t imagine how a family of 4 can live on it. And bear in mind, if a family on food stamps does something to increase its income to cover the difference – say, Mom takes a part-time job for an extra $40-50/wk – that amount is subtracted from the stamps or may even make her ineligible to be in the program any more. Talk about work-disincentives. You can be – and probably will be – penalized for going to work.
The original welfare set-up included things like Step Programs, which continued a level of support even after you got a job. You weren’t simply cut off. There was a realization that there was still a lot of financial instability – debts, rising housing costs, illness – arising from long-time poverty that meant you would be on the edge of going down again for months or, in worst-case scenarios, years. There was even a Step Program that helped a parent who wanted to go to college to better her chances of getting a good-paying job by continuing her rent and food subsidies as long as she was in school.
But it wasn’t long before conservative Republicans were howling that that was “too much”, and they combined with Blue Dog Democrats to re-write the law so that if a woman with kids went to college, she lost all her govt help.
A large part of the War on the Poor has always been around food. Apparently that hasn’t changed.