Commentary Politics

The Trump Administration’s Proposal to Combat Food Stamp ‘Fraud’ Is an Assault on Poor People’s Dignity

Chris Turner

In this country, to be poor is to be continually surrounded by shame. This proposal is an encapsulation of that shame. And for me, it's personal.

Sonny Perdue has a net worth of at least $11 million.

He has almost certainly never had to be taken aside and quietly told that his EBT card, a prepaid debit card the state uses to distribute food stamp money, won’t cover a rotisserie chicken. I’m guessing he’s never had to put back a box of toothpaste or a bottle of shampoo for the same reason, or looked for a quiet spot in a grocery store to scribble out pen-and-paper calculations on the back of an old receipt to avoid dirty looks when a card comes up short.

In short, he is currently disconnected from the current realities of poverty.

It’s essential to remember that context when evaluating how the 2019 fiscal year budget, which was announced earlier this month, cuts $80 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This will affect food stamps for around 4 million people. As for the rest of the funding, Perdue’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has an idea for combating “fraud and waste”: a box of cheap, shelf-stable food (milk, cereal, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables) in place of half of the money received each month.

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The logistical issues are immediate and obvious. Atlantic reporter Annie Lowrey came up with a list of 60 questions that such a proposal raises, including “What if you have allergies?”, “Should there be religious exemptions?”, and most crucially, “Why?”

I saw the proposal and was considerably less measured in my response—but it’s personal, in my case.

In this country, to be poor is to be continually surrounded by shame. Shame from your community. From the people you encounter on a daily basis. From politicians. From complete strangers. Shame that, in taking in the world around you, you sometimes internalize within yourself. To be poor is to be scrutinized from all sides at all times—”Where did you fail? What sort of moral corruption did you fall into, such that you are in this state? Why can’t you try harder? Why do we have to be continually reminded that you exist? We have been raised with this idea of an American Dream where anyone can get ahead; the fact that you are not is a personal affront to us.” This country is poisoned with a disease that is part prosperity gospel, part Calvinism, part rugged individualism. Members of historically vulnerable groups are the casualties.

This proposal is an encapsulation of that shame.

The fundamental idea behind it is that we cannot be trusted to choose our own food and are inherently irresponsible. That, left to our own devices we will—as so many people on social media and comments sections love to say—use food stamps to buy lobster and steak. Or that we will trade “200 in food stamps for 100 in cash for drugs.” (It always seems to be those food items and those dollar amounts. One presumes, based on the frequency these occur, that these anecdotes have been brought up on right-wing radio or Fox News.) And of course, there is, “Well, then they will stop buying so much junk food! Soda! Chips!”

People on food stamps do not purchase significantly more junk food than anyone else. Overall purchases are similar, too. Our cultural dialogue around diet, health, and the underlying morality of poverty—that some foods are “bad” and people who are poor have made “bad choices”—coalesces into the idea that buying junk food is a moral failing if you are poor.

The fundamental difference in diet between people in poverty and people who are financially better off comes down to nutrition, but it isn’t about junk food. Hunger in this country rarely looks like the gaunt bodies we see in charity advertisements; food insecurity and profound malnutrition are how it often manifests here. Partially because of how our subsidies are allocated, bulk starches and foods heavy in corn syrup are cheap, while fresh produce is expensive. And when people regularly have to skip meals for financial reasons, their bodies understand they are starving, and store calories more than is normally typical because they are accommodating to famine; cultural shame around fatness includes people who, far from eating “too much,” may be withering from malnutrition or unable to eat regularly at all. Bulk commodities as the majority of diet will exacerbate these malnutrition issues, not solve them.

It would have other adverse health outcomes too; this proposed program is similar to the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) that has been in place since 1970. Native people are now twice as likely as white people to have Type 2 diabetes.

I used SNAP for about a year, back in 2013; to be specific, my boyfriend at the time moved in with me and he received food stamps because he was on Supplemental Security Income, a disability program for people who have never been able to work. Meanwhile, I was barely scraping by as a student, trying to cover the costs of school, food, and utilitieswithout the sort of parents I could call for money like my peers had. They were doing their best, but back then I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking them for money. They were barely scraping by themselves.

So I would try and make a pound of lentils stretch into six or seven meals, and carefully divide a roll of sausage into sixteen pieces to add a bit of flavor to as many batches as possible. I’d sort through the stack of manager’s special meat and hope that it wouldn’t make me sick. A fresh tomato seemed like a luxury. Every meal was centered around the cheapest bulk starches I could get. My ideas of what wealth was were all food-centered—if I could graduate and get a good job I’d buy a dozen tomatoes. Strawberries. Maybe even lamb. That was the dream.

He got around $130 a month. Perhaps to you that doesn’t sound like much, for two people, but it was a godsend. Instead of letting my anemia just be a fact of life, I could start chipping away at it. We could have real meals that weren’t all one color. We certainly weren’t living large; a truly varied diet with enough fruits and vegetables would have cost twice as much.

And yes, because we were real people and not caricatures of “good poor people,” sometimes we got junk food. Living in desperation gives you a constant, underlying thread of anxiety that never goes away. Being able to have a relatively “normal” diet made me feel a bit more like a human being and not a sentient ball of stress. We had enough on our plates; if I dropped below a 3.5 GPA, I lost my primary scholarship and would have been unable to continue school. My car made noises I had to ignore because I couldn’t afford to fix them. We had a bedbug infestation.

But again we get back to shame.

Having to separate out your purchase into two sections—the food and the “unacceptable” food/not food—and use two different cards for the same cart is a clear enough signal to most people, even ones not all that familiar with how SNAP works. And all of a sudden neutral strangers became interested. Eyes tracked from the one package of cookies among the rest of our food, to his body, to my two cards.

His body, not mine, because I’m white and he’s Black and heavier than me and there are assumptions about what people on assistance look like. These assumptions are incorrect: the majority of food stamp recipients are white. But those who are marginalized, especially in multiple ways—disability, race, weight, sexuality—are hit the hardest by social censure and most likely to have ulterior motives assigned to them.

To total strangers we were cheating the system; we would get looks of disgust.

When politicians talk about the “dignity of work” to justify cutting assistance programs, what they’re missing, in many cases purposefully, is that the undignified thing isn’t to be not working, or to be poor and working but not making ends meet. The indignity is in how people in these circumstances are treated.

The head of our Environmental Protection Agency has taxpayers foot the bill for him to fly first class and have private security because people might be rude to him. Corporations make dodging taxes an art form. And yet we socially punish the person who uses food stamps to buy soda, not them. That’s a choice. This proposal is the logical endpoint of the cultural notion that wealth equals goodness.

If shame and punishment as a response to poverty ended poverty, this country would not have poor people.

Nonetheless, this administration appears to want to try, just in case.

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