What does living on food stamps mean?

written by naehblog
January 6, 2010

When I first read this weekend’s New York Times piece, which estimates that food stamps are the sole source of income for six million Americans, I began thinking: how does one survive on food stamps alone?

For a family of four, the food stamp allotment is $668 per month; for a couple, it’s $367.

As it turns out, some fix bicycles. Others sell their gun collections. One woman is trying to breed her chihuahua.

But I kept thinking, and I talked with others here at the Alliance: What does it mean that six million people have no other cash income?

It means that there are real and significant problems with federal programs designed to fight poverty. (Hat tip here to families expert, Sharon McDonald).

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) is one part of the puzzle. As the piece points out, the number of families receiving TANF, or cash assistance, has increased marginally during this recession. Although the stimulus package included a $5 billion Emergency Contingency Fund to help states fund their TANF programs, the number of families receiving TANF actually continued to decline in some states until March 2009.

In fact, the number of families receiving TANF has been decreasing since welfare reform under during the Clinton administration, and – in 2005 – fewer than half of eligible families received TANF benefits.

At the same time, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or the official name of the food stamp program) has ballooned. One reason behind the disparity in the growth of these programs may come down to brass tax: SNAP is fully-funded by the federal government; TANF requires states to dip into their own funds.

It’s a quandary that’s became all too familiar: cash-strapped states are having trouble meeting the ever-rising need for government assistance. Neither the states nor the consumers have anywhere to go to seek out more resources.

What’s clear in this unfortunate tangle is the need for a stronger, more accessible, social safety net. The facts collected, analyzed, and presented by the New York Times (they gathered their own data!) paints a picture all too clear: 1 in 17 residents in Yakima County, WA live on food stamps alone. The number is 1 in 25 in Detroit, MI. A clear 2 million children subsist solely on food stamps.

It is a difficult period for all Americans, but as an interdependent society, we have an obligation to take care of all of us – and especially those who struggle most. The need for new vision and effort is clear – together, we can make it happen.