Fed on Food Stamps

I ran in to “Kenneth” on the sidewalk outside a strip mall on the outskirts of Atlanta, taking a break from his job as a cook and server at a small restaurant. Affable and easygoing, we started chatting and he mentioned that he has been on food stamps for years.

Kenneth’s monthly food stamp allotment of $200 doesn’t carry his appetite to the end of the month, so he supplements by working in the food service industry so he can get at least one meal a day at work. This also helps him get more nutritional food into his diet, because as he readily admits, when he goes shopping he goes for calories over nutrition, the ubiquitous ramen noodles taking center stage.

Kenneth tells a story of receiving a cash gift from his aunts at Christmastime, and how the cash, used to pay utility bills, was seen as ‘income’ by his case worker, and caused him to lose food stamp benefits. Because of rigid asset tests to qualify for benefits, gifts like this one can cause more trouble than they are worth, and pose a real dilemma – accept the one-time gift from a well meaning friend or relative and risk being bumped from welfare programs, or refuse the gift and slip deeper into poverty.

In what is becoming one of the grand memes of this journey, I found myself contemplating how we have come to have able bodied, willing workers who can only afford to feed themselves by going on the dole. Kenneth doesn’t want to rely on food stamps – what he does want is a job with a living wage, which despite his best efforts he has been unable to find.

When asked what he thinks of the food stamp system, he said ‘it is great in theory’. This can be said of many of the welfare programs we have today – they are all great in theory – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and healing the destitute are all noble causes.

But does that mean we should we be thankful regardless of the fact that we do a poor job of it,  or should we be wondering how the programs got so big, so pervasive and so wasteful, and start trying to get people back on the road to self sufficiency again instead? I think it is a valid question.