How the stigma of food stamps plays into the election

A sign in a market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps in New York City.

The government program formerly known as food stamps is the subject of some attention this election cycle.

Today nearly 47 million Americans are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Conservatives say that's too many. But it's much more than a political issue. It's a personal one.

Wealth and Poverty reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji has been looking into the food stamps -- also known as EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer (it's like a debit card you can use to buy food just about everywhere). 

Many of the people she talked to feel like the food stamp recipient is "the new poster child for a bad economy." Instead of thinking about the actual human being going through tough financial times, many people just see it through the lens of government spending.

One of the food stamp recipients Meraji interviewed is Andrea Waterstreet, 44, an ex-waitress who is disabled. Waterstreet comes from a solid middle class background and says she worked from the time she was 14, but got too sick to work in 2008. She lived off unemployment insurance and when it ran out, she signed up for food stamps. She knows that people have preconceived notions about food stamp users, and she was nervous about sharing her story with the world.

"But at the same time I don't think it's anything that is dishonorable," said Waterstreet. 

Meraji says there's mixed feelings about being on government assistance. And all the talk about food stamps during the election has made people less willing to be open.

In 2008, in an effort to re-brand the food stamp program, it became known as SNAP -- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. States can go even further and call the program what they want. In California, for example, SNAP is called Cal Fresh. The federal government created commercials and public service announcements to get people to recognize the new name. But was it enough to change the perception of government food aid?

The jury's still out, says Meraji.

"I don't think the people who use the program, that I spoke to, are out there advertising to the world: 'Hey look at me, I'm on food stamps.' I think they would say they still feel pretty stigmatized," says Meraji.

Paul Gregory, an economist from the Hoover Institution, said the government is doing all it can to erase the stigma of government dependency and that changing the name of the program from food stamps to SNAP is one way of doing that -- but that's not a good thing. All the advertisements and public service announcements are troubling to him, because Americans are starting to look to the government first to meet their needs, rather than being resourceful and helping themselves, or going to local charities and nonprofits.

At a regional food bank in Los Angeles, Meraji spoke with volunteer Scott Wilderman, who echoed that sentiment. He volunteers at his church and was picking up food for his church pantry when she spoke with him.

"Every week we give food out at our church," said Wilderman. "Food stamps is socialism and we're not a socialist country."

Despite all the focus on food stamps from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan, food stamps aren't the only government safety net program. So why have Romney and Ryan focused so much attention on food stamps during this election?

Meraji says it's because everybody knows who uses them and what they're for. So, if you're trying to make the point that government spends all this money on programs and what do we have to show for it -- it's much easier to use food stamps as an example than the other social safety net programs like the earned income tax credit and child tax credit that eat up a much bigger chunk of the government budget than food stamps do.

"Bringing up food stamps is an easy way into the big debate this election season and that's what role should the government play: big or small," says Meraji.

About the author

Shereen Marisol Meraji is a reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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