Swiping away food stamps' stigma

Food stamp usage is on the rise, and now that they work just like a debit card, it's easy to use them inconspicuously.

Ann Hermes / Staff / File
Stephanie and Veronica King unload the groceries they bought with food stamps at the Super Shop in Brighton, Mass., in this 2008 file photo.

Being on food stamps used to be considered an embarrassment. People used to hide it. I remember my grandmother speculating about the ne’er do wells living down the street, “I hear they’re on food stamps,” she said derisively. It was the ultimate indignity to have the government pay for your groceries. People on food stamps were either lazy or slimeballs gaming the system, stealing from everyone else.

Now over 44 million people in America swipe what looks to be a debit card with Uncle Sam picking up the tab. Everyone pays with a card so no one is the wiser other than the checkout person. Back in the old days, food stamps stuck out like a sore thumb. While everyone else was paying with cash or writing checks, those getting their grub courtesy of the government had funny-looking scrip of various colors to exchange with.

Now food stamps has gone mainstream. More than 13 percent of the population avails themselves of the Supplemental Nutrition (SNAP). SNAP is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and they have a nice website with pictures of smiling well-fed kids on the home page. There’s a section of links for applicants and recipients, and a section for retail merchants as well.

SNAP recipients can’t buy booze or soap with the benefits. Live animals are off the list as well. Forget about buying hot foods with food stamps, or vitamins, or medicines.

But, “Soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items,” says SNAP. So those that qualify aren’t restricted to bread and water and government cheese.

The first food-stamp program began back in 1939 and every few years new programs have been piled on top of the old ones. There’s a quaint story on Wikipedia of Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, West Virginia, being the first recipients under the 1961 version of the food-stamp program and “In the first food stamp transaction, they bought a can of pork and beans at Henderson’s Supermarket,” for their 15-person household with part of their $95 in food stamps. Today, the Muncy family would be eligible for $2,252 a month in SNAP benefits.

Since 1969, participation in SNAP has increased 15-fold and has more than doubled in just the last decade. In Utah, the number on food stamps increased 34 percent from last year. Other western states, Nevada and Idaho, are right behind with 25 and 24 percent annual increases, respectively.

“Officials attributed the rise in western food-stamp usage to a push by states for increased access, such as by expediting the process of determining if an applicant is eligible, as well as the recession’s impact,” the Wall Street Journal‘s Jim Carlton writes.

Carlton writes about an Idaho couple who don’t yet qualify for SNAP. Right now, they bring in $2,200 a month from unemployment benefits and disability compensation. But Michael Bruesch’s unemployment checks are about to stop. Then, “we will qualify for food stamps,” says Mr. Bruesch who hasn’t worked in 15 months.

Right now the couple lines up for food handouts at the Oasis Worship Center. They want to pay as little as possible for food; after all, they want to “keep making mortgage payments.”

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