I’m just saying… food stamps… there’s a lot more to this story

I want you to understand that this article isn’t a critique of the food stamp process. Sure, I have my own opinions about government support and charity and the way programs should be run or determine eligibility. None of that is along the road I am looking to travel here.

Instead, when we get there, the idea is more that this program recently has given me a few moments of head scratching.

(Originally this article began with a link to a story from the Associated Press. I have maintained the quotes here, because they deal with statistics that fall in line with numbers I have seen in many places. But the link is no longer active and I have not been able to located the actual piece again. It was cross-referenced to the census and uninsured.) Let’s visit that opening paragraph together.


“The ranks of the nation’s poor have swelled to a record 46.2 million – nearly 1 in 6 Americans – as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions still struggling and out of work. And the number without health insurance has reached 49.9 million, the most in over two decades.”

Two big ideas kicking around in that one. First, the number of people living in poverty. Article says 1 in 6. And second… well… didn’t we supposedly fix health insurance just last year? No… really… I’m asking. (I guess the healthcare stuff from a year ago didn’t make big news… but I seem to recall seeing something on it.) Because this article -- after giving us 1 in 6 people for poverty -- gives us a number 3 million higher without health insurance. (And it does not say that the 46.2 million are all rolled up in the 49.9 million. In other words… we are almost certainly well over 50 million people either in poverty or without health insurance, and frequently both.)

To add just a bit more to the foundation, let’s piece together two last pieces of information from that article.

“The overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent… last year, the official poverty level was an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.”

If you have a full time job, you work 2,080-hours per year. That’s 40 times 52. For a family of four, one person working, at the income noted, that equates to about $10.73 an hour. And honestly, I’m just not sure I know what that means or where to take it next.

See, if you want to start doing fancy math involving 9.1 percent unemployment and 15.1 percent poverty and 4 people in a home… go ahead. If you want to talk about minimum wage and tax rates… have fun. But I tend to be skeptical of numbers. I believe the results aren’t always clean and simple when it comes to math, because people have motives to generate specific results. In short, numbers absolutely do lie.

Instead, I simply want you to understand that we are looking at some really crazy numbers as we begin. And on that, I think we can all agree.

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Have you heard about water dumping?

It’s a term used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, basically, it covers the situations where people buy water with food stamps in locations where there is a bottle deposit, dump the water out, and then return the bottles for cash.

Now, let’s say you purchased a case of water… 24 bottles… using food stamps. And let’s say that case of water cost you $3. Many states not only require deposits on beverages like soda, but also on bottles of water. At 5-cents a bottle, you would pay $3.60 for the water plus the bottle deposit. You go out into the street, dump out all 24 bottles, and head back to the store to return them. A cashier will give you two quarters and a dime.

Sixty cents. It cost you more than three dollars to obtain them. You converted the food stamps into currency at a rate of 1-cent returned to you for every 6-cents spent.

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Did you know that fast food restaurants want to be allowed to accept food stamps?

Sure they do. According to this article, “…Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut, is trying to get restaurants more involved, federal lobbying records show.”

More importantly than the issue of whether or not it happens, or when it began, is a simple underlying point… lost revenue is driving businesses to search for and consider any and all possibilities for generating sales.

Gone are the days when food stamps bought groceries at the local supermarkets. They are being accepted at restaurants… as well as gas stations, convenience stores, and other locations that can meet the government criteria (federal and/or local) for the goods and services offered.

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Food stamps aren’t really called food stamps these days. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a Food and Nutrition Service, and they oversee the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Food stamps are now known as SNAP benefits.

Remember Hurricane Irene? Recently… back in late August… the storm worked its way up the east coast. And SNAP came into play, reportedly to the tune of replacement benefits amounting to roughly 25% of a monthly allotment in Connecticut.

Funny thing… see… other articles about the storm and loss of food included information about how almost anyone with a homeowner’s insurance policy likely has food items included for circumstances such as loss due to storms and power losses. But… as one source noted (link no longer active, but others worded in similar fashion): “Many homeowners’ insurance policies cover food spoilage from extended power outages, though the reimbursement usually kicks in only if the value exceeds the policy’s deductible.” Did you catch that? The value of the loss has to exceed the deductible in order to qualify for any type of reimbursement.

So SNAP recipients received a 25% replacement, while many homeowners with insurance policies didn’t file claims since the deductible total either exceeded the value to be claimed or made it effectively pointless to be filing a claim.

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A few years ago… yes, years ago, it was February of 2009… I wrote an article called “The economy? Drink your fluids, get some rest, and check back in seven to ten days.

In that piece, I quoted an article from The Providence Journal that said: “An estimated 91,000 Rhode Islanders would be added to the food stamp rolls by 2013, injecting an additional $55 million into the state economy.”

And today, I don’t think I could sum up my frustrations on that story any better than I did back then:

Doesn’t this statement say that adding 91,000 people as food stamp recipients will be good for the economy? Can that be true? Now hold on… before you jump in with a quick yes… remember, the comment also talks about 2013! This is not addressing people of immediate need. This is not extending unemployment benefits for 2009… 2010… 2011. This is not working with stores and people in need to pay bills and get food for the next 24 to 36 months. This is talking about an increase in need more than four years away!

Are government assistance programs… when the results are showing that more people are qualifying for them… good for the economy? What am I missing? Because it sure sounds to me like a way of saying increased unemployment… rising demands for welfare programs… and efforts like this are positive things.

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I think it’s safe to say that anyone willing to literally pour $3.60 worth of SNAP benefits away for a return of $0.60 in cash is acting in extremes. There’s no sense in the action… since if the needs were food or water, two of the most basic and important of human needs, then the SNAP benefits on their own or the water purchased would have satisfied those needs. We’re talking desperation.

We could debate… we won’t though… whether there is some merit in a situation where, for example, a parent has no time to cook for a child and utilizing SNAP benefits at a restaurant does provide a warm meal. Instead, I’ll rest on this one with the idea that a well-planned shopping list is far more likely to produce healthy eating than a burger and fries handed out a drive-thru window.

Simply put, to apply reasonable thoughts to unreasonable conditions never works. (Often… for those fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid… it leads to the feeling you would get if you were the one wondering why anyone would want to clarify rules for the knife fight you are about to begin. But I digress.)

Maybe I don’t have the ability to connect the dots right now, but the reality is that all of these examples… and so many more… have me wondering about the picture we are getting from the dots we can connect.

(A third article no longer active, from associatedcontent.com and Wes Laurie, with a surprising observation worth sharing and also found in other sources). We arrive at the idea of presenting need as a scam to make money. Want a good quote from an article? Ok: “Outside of a Target store in Ventura, California, on the lot’s exit and entrance section there is always one single homeless person waiting for donations from people in passing cars. It is almost always a different person, yet it appears to be the same sign they are holding up; very neat print on a cut out of cardboard.” As Laurie so wonderfully asks: “…how do you know who to trust when feeling charitable?”

And that is where I am ultimately headed with this piece.

Food stamps used to collect the prize of the week from the children’s menu…

Solving the economic troubles by placing more and more people into government assistance programs…

It’s not the idea of helping those in need that is so upsetting. It’s a system being taken advantage of, catering to extremes, and predicting growth for the future. Seriously… should government assistance programs, such as SNAP benefits, really be the foundation of a successful business model?

Food and water are essential to life, and yet people are willing to trade them at rates not much better than pennies on the dollar for cash in hand.

Government groups at federal, state and local levels predict things like “an additional $55 million into the state economy” almost with pride. The source doesn’t matter… pay no attention to this hand over here… just look at the bottom line. (Sidney Bernstein… Beverly Hills Cop II… “Is there something that I have in this office that I could hand to you, and that would make you kind of forget that you’re holding those, uh, pink tickets there?”)

It makes no sense. And I suppose it shouldn’t… since reasonable thought is being applied.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com