People who receive food stamps are not lazy, ungrateful, deviant abusers of the system. Well, maybe some of them are. We should still provide public assistance that enables them to buy food.
But we’re not going to.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, Florida brought back the three-month limit on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for adults who aren’t on disability and don’t have dependents, which had been suspended during the Great Recession. Beginning April 1, these so-called able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents and aren’t working or participating in job training a minimum of 20 hours per week will be cut off from SNAP benefits. And unless their employment, dependency or disability situation changes, they will be prohibited from participating in the program for three long, hungry years. It could be 2019 before the 500,000 to 1 million Americans that the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities estimates the limit will affect this year alone can afford a decent meal.
On paper, it makes sense to require adults who are capable of taking care of themselves to do so; in practice, able-bodied is a subjective category that encompasses thousands of people who, for whatever reason — and many insist that the reasons are as inexplicable as Keith Richards surviving into his 70s — can’t get approved for disability benefits. Folio Weekly Magazine has previously reported on this issue; trust that it is not so black-and-white as “able-bodied” = “can work.” (“Able-Bodied in the Coverage Gap,” June 17, 2015)
Before you go off on one of those rants about slothful, entitled mooches on society that are so popular with the kids these days, take note that the SNAP cutoff also affects adults who want to work but can’t find a job. There are lots of reasons why it can be difficult for the less-fortunate to get hired: obesity, illiteracy, appearance discrimination aka lookism, prejudice, accent, lacking education, bankruptcy, undesirable social media footprint, etc.
In addition to all these (legal) forms of workplace discrimination, there’s no denying that it can be next to impossible for people who have to check that box that asks about criminal convictions to get a job. What do you think is going to happen when they stop receiving SNAP benefits? They’re either going to go hungry or find another way to fill their stomachs, which could be private assistance, friends and family or a return to crime. It costs a helluva lot more to house someone in jail or prison than it does to provide him or her with a monthly stipend to buy food.
In 2014, nonprofit organization Feeding Northeast Florida reported that there were 348,000 food-insecure people, or people who weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from, in the 17 counties of this region. That means 1 in 6 people in the region did not know if they were going to be able to afford their next meal.
Is this the kind of society that we should strive to create, the kind that would rather its citizens starve than spend a little bit extra making sure everyone can eat? (Well, everyone except people with drug trafficking convictions, who are running from a felony warrant or intentionally break Food Assistance Program rules; all such individuals are banned from receiving SNAP benefits. This is Florida, after all.)
Let’s be clear about one thing that is missing from much of the criticism of welfare: Living on the public dole ain’t no great life with all the comforts of the middle class. It’s scratching out an existence in a shitty apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, getting by on so few dollars and cents that no reasonable person would ever choose that life.
No greater good is served by letting people starve in the land of plenty, which, make no mistake, is where we live. (Thanks, Monsanto!) And the only victory in trimming fat from the 2.3 percent of the total federal budget that went to providing food stamps in 2014, per the Washington Post and White House data, is perceived in the shriveled hearts of those who have never gone without, a hollow, callous celebration that their blessed tax dollars aren’t being spent feeding hungry people who could possibly feed themselves. Maybe they’re right and every single able-bodied adult without dependents who receives SNAP benefits should get a job, stop sucking the government teat and take care of him or herself. But they’re not going to. Instead they’re going to find another way to get food, if they can. If they can’t, well, there is no amount of strangers’ judgment that is capable of filling stomachs.