Friday, January 2, 2009

Who is worthy? Poverty & the price of shrimp

Community forums where anonymity prevails are a great if sometimes painful way to find out what people really think about poor people.

Yesterday, New Year's Day, someone commented on Springfield MA's s forum that he or she had seen someone on food stamps buy $40 worth of crab legs.

One poster (I am not allowed to quote directly) asserted that some poor working joe who's trying to support a family on a $10 an hour wage would never be eating shrimp or crab legs and that what a person is allowed to buy on food stamps should be circumscribed. My query as to the possibly apocryphal nature of this observation-- was this something the poster had observed first-hand or had heard about from someone else?-- went unanswered.

The next thirty posts were about how 85% of food stamp users sold their food stamps for money or drugs, or bought shrimp platters or other expensive food items with them.

Now, the truth is, the days when food stamp recipients had to fumble with tearing $1, $5 and $10 coupons out of a book while others in the checkout line waited impatiently are long gone. The user swipes a card pretty indistinguishable from a regular debit card, so you really have to be right on top of someone and really trying in their business to know exactly how they're paying.

So let's do a reality check about our poor working slob who earns $10 an hour to support his family, and whether or not a shrimp platter would ever be in his budget.

First of all, our friend Joe is almost certainly eligible for food stamps himself-- and so are at least some of the forum posters.

Let's say Joe has a wife and two kids, works fulltime at $10 an hour, and lives in a $750 a month apartment in which he pays his own utilities.

Luckily for Joe, according to MassResources, his family is eligible for some fuel assistance.

Then, if I go over to the Food Stamp Calculator, and keep it simple by assuming Joe has no other income or major expenses such as childcare, Joe and his family should get about $380 a month in food stamps.

Joe's family's in trouble, of course. Let's take away 25% of $1,600 for taxes, leaving $1,200, and then deduct his $750 rent. He's got $450 a month left to live on, and of course he has other expenses.

But it's New Year's Eve. He goes to Shop and Stop after work to pick up a few things, and his eye is caught by a shrimp platter in the seafood section. It's only $26. He stops for a minute and then thinks, "What the hell."

The woman behind him in the check-out line seems not in the holiday spirit; she frowns at his tentative smile. But that's OK. It's New Year's Eve and he's headed home. Home to his family.


marginalutility said...

God, I hate it when people comment on what people on food stamps should or should not buy. Apparently, all they're allowed to buy on our tax dollars is wheat germ--and it had better be *cheap* wheat germ at that! As soon as you're poor and on public assistance, you lose all right to celebrate any occasion, or the right for eating to be anything more than a chore.
& as you said, food stamp cards are like debit cards these days, so it'd be real difficult to sell them for drugs. But we all love to accuse the poor of selling their benefits for drugs--why should we let facts stop us?

Anonymous said...

Michaelann, I've always been in awe of those that judge folks on Stamps or Cash Benefits. I've thought to myself, if we start policing what's bought to nourish our families, same would be done in cases where certain folks have to have a certain diet - *Diabetics also*, Or a person that lives alone, buying smaller portions, which are more expensive than items in larger portions or in bulk. Take for instance, if you are lactose intolerant, sucks to be you, because you earn food stamps, you have to suffer and drink cow's milk (sounds fair to anyone?), or if you have a child such as mine where gluten can be detrimental to his overall health, I guess that the white bread is just going to have to be good enough if I were (I AM) on food stamps (because the hungry person in line behind me thinks it has to be so.) I have 1 child at home, with certain nutritional needs. I'll be dammed if anyone in line behind me at the check-out will walk out without a tongue lashing when they tell me, I as a mother shouldn't be preparing and feeding my child the very best nutrition my money or food stamps can buy. When they themselves will leave and wish themselves had stamps and/or possibly go home and feed their child scraps, because they haven't swallowed what pride they have to apply for the benefit of survival. One thing I learned, from Arise, and there are SOOO many things, is that EVERYONE has the RIGHT to apply for assistance! Last I checked, shrimp, crab, lobster, are all great sources of nutrition, so are sardines, and cod, and more types of fish (Omega 3 Amino Acids). When it comes down to it, as parents we want what's BEST for our kids, or at least want more for them than we had. I hope.

Anonymous said...

Food Stamp had a limited for each month to spent. They should eat whatever they like and as long as it is healthy food and as long they know how to manage the amounth of spending for each month. They should buy shrimp or lobster wheather if they have cash or foodstamp. Lobster is delicious food and if you have footstamp and and afraid to buy lobster, then you don't have chance to eat lobster. It might be the rest of your life no lobster if they think that way.