I'm sure many have seen the articles circulating about how the rich and famous are challenging each other to eat for an entire week on just $29 per person per week - the average benefit allotted to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients. So far, I think the rich and famous are failing miserably.
The thoughts and comments of the general public regarding the rich & famous' "$29 Food Stamp Challenge" seem to range from excessive self pity by some receiving SNAP benefits to mean & hateful attitudes by some paying taxes to support SNAP and everything imaginable in between. After reading a few comments regarding these articles, I again found myself very grateful to have grown up poor and without government assistance. Because of a lack of finances, I learned through the everyday lifestyle of my family how to be resourceful, how to make a dollar last, how to stretch the food in the pantry, and make do with everything else.
Being from the south we eat southern cuisine. Being country folks we eat country cuisine. Southern and country cuisines are generally cooked from scratch using readily available basic ingredients and are usually very economical. Until last year, I fed our family for an average of $21.00 per week per person. Because of last year's garden and livestock, our current grocery bill has been reduced to less than $12 per week per person. We have always kept our grocery budget well below the national average SNAP benefit, currently $29 per person per week.
Through the children's 4-H club we've also volunteered at our town's local food bank. There are some startling facts concerning food resources for the poor that I've learned from volunteering at the local food bank. I'm going to share these cold hard facts. Just like the comment section from the various news articles covering this topic, this information may bring about feelings of anger, sympathy, self-pity, etc. from some folks reading my blog. All I ask is that all comments, whether good, bad or indifferent, be kept polite and tactful.
There are four basic categories of clients that enter our local food bank.
1. The low-income (aka, the working poor), who make too much to qualify for benefits but significantly less than the national household average of $51,939 annually. For a family of four, $31,008 annually is the cut off point for SNAP benefits.
2. The underfunded senior citizen. Generally, these folks have worked a lifetime, many beginning their working lives as young as age 12, paid a lifetime of taxes and attempted to live a quiet, peaceful and responsible life. Unfortunately they did not, or could not, adequately save enough to support the high cost of medical care they find themselves currently subject to. The majority of their social security and retirement incomes are eaten up by large medical costs.
3. The part-time low wage earner who qualifies for SNAP benefits. Although these folks work, many don't seem especially motivated to further their education, work experience or seek full-time employment.
4. The multi-generational, unemployed, full-time welfare recipient. Sadly, these folks have accepted welfare poverty as the best they can, or want, to achieve from life.
I'll begin a description of my personal experiences from my town's local food bank with the disparity of the first category, the working poor. Remember, the working poor are those families who earn one cent or more over the maximum eligibility requirements for SNAP. (a family of 4: $31,008). These families do not qualify for SNAP, free breakfasts & lunches through the public school system, WIC, or government commodities from the local food bank.
(Oh! here's where I should probably explain the government commodity aspect of the food bank. Government commodities are food stuffs donated to the food bank by the US Department of Agriculture. Each month a semi-truck from the USDA full of everything imaginable arrives at our food bank. About 1/3 of the trailer is unloaded and, literally, packed into our tiny food bank. It delivers frozen meats, canned fruits and vegetables, boxes of cereals, dairy products, packages of flavored pasta and rice mixes, etc. Federal law prevents non-SNAP clients from receiving government commodities.)
I am known for attempting to educate others on maintaining a reasonable grocery bill. And thus, I'll remind all that many popular financial advisors such as Suzy Orman, Dave Ramsy, Larry Burkett, suggest a family spends no more than 13% of their annual income on food. With that in mind:
**A working poor family of 4 earning $31,008.01 annually (1 cent more than the maximum income allowed for SNAP benefits), should not spend more than $4,031 annually OR $335.92 monthly OR $77.51 weekly or $19.38 per week per person for groceries. A reasonable grocery budget for these non-qualifying families is only 66% of the average SNAP benefit, showing a family of 4 must earn $46,400 annually before they can comfortably budget $29 per week per person for food.
**When a working poor family of 4, that does not qualify for SNAP benefits, arrives at our local food bank, they must go to the end of the line. Because our food bank accepts USDA commodities and private donations, federal law mandates SNAP clients with dependent children are served first. Non-SNAP clients are served last, regardless of their situation. Federal law also prohibits non-SNAP clients from receiving any government commodities.
**Working poor families do not qualify or receive other free food resources such as free breakfasts and lunches for children through the public school or WIC benefits for children under age 5.
**Because the SNAP clients go first and are allowed to select from the private donation area in addition to USDA commodities, non-SNAP clients have been turned away from the food bank because the SNAP recipients gleaned all the private donations and there wasn't any food left for non-SNAP clients.
Next, I'll share how the retired senior citizen, eligible for SNAP benefits, are served:
** Because of social security & retirement incomes the average senior citizen receives only $58 per month / $686 annually in SNAP benefits.
** Although they qualify for government commodities, the USDA regulations mandate a very limited quantity and selection is donated to senior citizens. We literally fill a box for our senior citizen clients, they do not have the option of "shopping" the commodity section of the food bank.
**Because senior citizens do not have dependent children, obviously they do not receive free breakfasts & lunches at public schools.
**Because senior citizens do not have dependent children under the age of 5, they do not qualify for or receive WIC benefits.
** Because they do not have dependent children, the amount of government commodities they qualify for averages only $14.83 per month OR only $177.96 per year.
**Because they do not have dependent children, senior citizens are the 2nd group of clients to go through the food bank.
**Because they do not have dependent children they are limited to an estimated $10 per month maximum from the private food donation area. $120 annually.
**Every senior citizen I've served finds something in his/her commodity box that he or she does not or can not eat. They generously donate it back to the food bank, "so the young babies won't go hungry."
**Every senior citizen I've served very carefully selects only the most needed items from the private donation area, if available.
**We've had to turn senior citizens away from the public donation area because the non-retired SNAP recipients who get to go before them didn't leave anything for the senior citizens or non-SNAP clients.
**To the best of my knowledge, at my small town's local food bank, all but two senior citizen clients whom we serve worked until age and/or health mandated retirement.
When one adds up the retired senior citizen's benefits: SNAP $686 + government commodities $177.96 + private food bank donations, if available, $120.00 = maximum of $983.96 annually OR $81.99 per month OR $18.92 per week per person - we see they receive significantly LESS (more than 1/3 less) than the $29 per week per person challenge suggests. From the view out my window, in addition to unaffordable healthcare costs, the second greatest challenge our nation's low income senior citizens face is hunger.
Lastly I'll share my experiences with the last two categories, part-time low income SNAP recipients and unemployed, full-time welfare recipients. To maintain consistency, I'll use a family size of 4 as an example:
**In my state a family of four can qualify for up to $649 per month in SNAP benefits - this amount is the maximum and is reserved for the unemployed, full-time welfare recipient.
**My state is in line with the national average SNAP benefit for a family of four at $502.66 per month ($29 per week per person) - these households have at least one person employed at a low income level.
**A family of four must earn less than $31,008 annually to qualify for even a minimal SNAP benefit - $18 per month.
**non-retired SNAP recipients qualify for and receive free breakfasts and lunches at public schools ($744 per year per child)
**non-retired SNAP recipients with children under the age of 5 also qualify and receive WIC ($633 per year per child)
**non-retired SNAP recipients qualify and receive monthly government commodities from the local food bank (estimated at $780 per year per household)
**non-retired SNAP recipients qualify and receive privately donated foods from the local food bank (averages $810 per year per household, but can be as much as $1,000 per year per household - depending on donation levels)
**Because our local food bank accepts USDA commodities, federal law mandates that non-retired SNAP recipients with dependent children are served FIRST.
When we add up the value of available food resources for an average low income, non-retired SNAP family of 4 (two adults, one school aged child and one child under 5) = annual SNAP benefit of $6,031.92 + school breakfasts & lunches for one child $744.00 + WIC for one child $633 + government commodities $780.00 + private food bank donations $810 = $8,998.92 annually OR $749.91 monthly OR $173.05 per week OR $43.26 per week per person, we realize that these folks receive significantly MORE than the very misleading $29 per person per week challenge circulating among our nation's rich & famous. Please keep in mind that an, unemployed, full-time welfare family of four would receive approximately $1,756.08 per year more in SNAP benefits than the low income SNAP family portrayed in this example.
I believe in and support helping the poor. But I also believe in honesty. In keeping with the 13% annual food budget, a senior citizen or a family of 4 would have to earn $69,000 annually to comfortably afford the same amount of food resources available to the average non-retired SNAP eligible family of four (this commentary's categories 3 & 4). In 2013, the average US household income was only $51,939. (2014's numbers will not be available until late 2015). I'll provide that math for you ... 13% of $51,939 = $6,752.07 / annually OR $562.67 / monthly OR $129.85 weekly OR $32.46 per person per week- that's only $3.46 more per week than the publicized average of $29 SNAP recipient. However, when we add all the other food resources available to SNAP recipients we find that SNAP recipients receive $43.26 per week per person - a full $10.80 MORE per week per person than the average U.S. full-time wage earner can comfortably afford.
Like it or not, those are the cold hard facts in my town. Senior citizens, the working poor and the lower middle class (those between poverty, family of four earning $31,008.01 & middle-class national average $51,939) seem to be the ones who are genuinely struggling with food insecurities.
We should also keep in mind that an April 2015 RFDTV agricultural news broadcast segment shared that while U.S. wages have remained stagnant, national food costs have seen an increase of 15% during the past 18 months. Thus, making it even more challenging for our nation's senior citizens, working poor, and lower-middle class families to affordably purchase food.