A Salon piece called Hipsters on Food Stamps has provoked a lot of outrage, most of it pretty hilarious to me. It seems that people on food stamps just can’t catch a break. First they’re stereotyped as Escalade-driving “Welfare Queens” who have the audacity to buy chips and sodas and other unhealthy food with their government benefits. Now we’re mad that this recession has put young professionals out of work, they’re on food stamps, and they have the gall to buy fresh, organic produce with their benefits? (For a great response, see this piece by an actual “hipster” on food stamps.)
Personally, as someone interested in sustainable food, I’ve been heartened to see increased efforts to get people on food stamps access to healthy produce and other food, including getting farmers’ markets to accept food stamps. A major reason people in poverty have higher rates of obesity is a lack of access to fresh and healthy food in poorer communities. Instead of scoffing at people who buy eggplant with food stamps, we should be glad that they’re eating in a way that is good for themselves (which holds down health costs for everyone) and the planet.
Food stamps, contrary to popular belief, actually put money INTO the economy. People use food stamps to buy food, which puts money in the pockets of store owners and allows them to create jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that for every $5 of food-stamp spending, there is $9.20 of total economic activity. In fact, food stamps are a more effective, faster-acting, and direct economic stimulus than tax cuts. The next time you think that, “as a taxpayer,” you’re entitled to judge the food choices of any individual on food stamps, you should remember that they don’t owe you anything, they don’t really cost you anything, and if anything, their benefits are benefiting your community too.
In addition, I often wonder if people who criticize the choices of people on any form of government benefits have ever had to rely on government benefits themselves. I didn’t know much about government benefits until I became unemployed in fall 2008. When I was laid off, I applied for unemployment benefits, and was shocked to realize just how meager my monthly “wage” would be on unemployment. It didn’t even begin to cover COBRA to replace the health insurance I lost along with my job, for example. If I had not been married to someone who remained employed, I would not have been able to afford to house and feed myself. While people may point to a few people who manage to “milk the system,” the vast majority of people on any sort of government benefits truly need them, and are barely squeaking by. Yesterday I saw someone claim that there are Medicaid recipients who drive Escalades and have iPhones. I mentioned this to my husband, who sees many Medicaid patients as a pediatrician, and he laughed at how far-fetched the idea is. Are there some people who may live like that and still draw Medicaid benefits? I’m sure you could find a few. But it’s worth remembering that this is not the average.
I know the current populist rage seems to be pitting “working people” against the entire rest of the country. I just pray that instead of begrudging the benefits of our neighbors who are dealing with hard times, we could think for a minute that we’re lucky we, ourselves, don’t need them right now, and be grateful that such a safety net is there if we need it, because we never know when we might.