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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There should be a stigma for getting food stamps. You f'd up and can't provide for yourself. Nothing to be proud of. You didn't save during the time you had an income to provide for the time you didn't. or you got pregnant and decided to have the baby even without a father, or with a father incapable of supporting even himself.

The stima is part of what keeps people from abusing the system.

Part of the reason the author found it so hard to get people to go on the record is that many people are recieving benefits they aren't legally entitled to. Either the lied on the application, or after they got a job, they never bothered to tell the food stamp program to stop sending them money.

Since money is fungable, if you give everyone in an area that assistance, they have of their other money to pay rent. So higher market rents are sustained.

Part of the problem with providing all the neccesities of life to people in need is that the safety net can quickly become a hamock. Many people worked full time at jobs they dislike to provide essentially the same neccessities so when you give them the opportunity to live the same, but have something new, leasure, they take it. It's only rational.

I take exception to some of Scott Wilderman's comments. Scott works at his local food shelf, and noted that when members of his community received SNAP, they stopped coming to the local food shelf for handouts. Scott implied that the money used for SNAP was an inappropriate use of government funds when local food shelves were available. I'd like to point out that I live in Minnesota, and see people standing outside for hours waiting for food from food shelves. Many of these people have children in tow. I applaud the generosity of those who contribute to food shelves, but I imagine that anyone who needs food would appreciate the expediency of receiving a swipe card that can be used when they normally shop for food. Many of the food shelf recipients may also be working -- juggling jobs and child care with standing in lines. Oh, and did I mention the humiliation of standing outside a food shelf for hours?--In Minnesota?--In winter? Scott, have a heart!

Like millions of other Americans who have been financially wiped out by the Wall Street and mortgage industry greed merchants, Andrea Waterstreet is yet another vulnerable American who legitimately needs a little help in order to nutritionally sustain herself after losing her job, losing her good health and having no other dependable means of meeting basic food needs. The ultimate safety net that is Food Stamps/SNAP is there precisely for Americans like Ms. Waterstreet to use in times of need. Consider that during her various years of working, she contributed to the government funding for food stamps through the various taxes she paid in over those years. During those years, she did not need food stamps; now, she does. That's how SNAP was meant to work. That's how civic morality works in a decent, compassionate democracy. She paid it forward for years. I'd say that Ms. Waterstreet and every other American who has been deprived of work, home, unemployment benefits should, at a minimum, be able to subsist on food stamps for as long as this second Great Depression endures.

You're putting all the blame on nameless faceless corporations when a lot of fault should fall on the people that over extended themselves to borrow money they weren't able to pay back, or took bets in the stock market that they didn't understand. When prices were going up they thought they were the smartest guy on the block, so greedy. When they fell back to earth, they're pointing the finger at "corporations". If anyone is to share their blame, it would be the government for putting in place bad public policy that encouraged excessive debt for residential real estate, and supporting a fiat monetary system that produces bubble after bubble because of artifical and low interest rates.

Ms. Waterstreet worked for many years, why is it so strange to think she wouldn't be able to budget for her own food during a period of unemployment. She had enough extra to pay al those taxes, she would have had enough to save.

The second great depression will endure as long as the powers that be attempt to stiffle the corrections that need to happen to restructure the economy. They resist because they would be politically painful.

What was striking about the last piece of tape was that the man objecting to public sector support for hungry Americans was in favor of people going to religious organizations for their needs. So the problem is not feeding hungry people, but that the government is participating in this effort to safeguard the well being of its citizens--indeed, that the American people, through our taxes paid into the federal pot for all manner of expenditures to the common good, should want to help each other through a centrally administered program. This common civic enterprise should not be vilified. This is the overarching identity that we all share, regardless of our other beliefs. The man's complaint against a civic program was that it prevents people from being dependent upon religious organizations; how is that to the national good? Individuals who want to engage in a zer0-sum game of claiming authority to dispense charity do not have the best interests of the hungry at heart, nor the country. There is, unfortunately, more than enough opportunity for governmental and non-governmental organizations to aid the needy.

Ya who is this guy claiming the authority the church to hand out charity when it's roll of the federal government since it wouldn't benefit any partticular voting constituency or anything like that would it? Like a particular party that sells itself as continuing to fund programs that people have become dependant on for their daily food. People prefer to get charity from government because they don't give you a guilt trip, they just hand it over. A church might actually ask you to help out and cut the grass, or pick up some trash or something.

Dear Ms. Meraji,
Thank you for looking into the important issue of stigma in this election cycle. It's shadow certainly plays into today's political narratives with a force quite potent and yet, as all stigma does, exercises it's influence in a veiled and abstracted expression. Please though begin to more deeply explore the responses you receive from your subjects and the deeper significance of your own conclusions.
Folks who'll offer up statements like, "Food stamps is socialism and we're not a socialist country," are (whether one concurs or not) a dime a dozen, but the opportunity to explore how stigma problematically acts on themes of community, fellowship, compassion,the church and political/cultural ideologies deserves at least a brief follow up inquiry and examination.
Likewise, when your piece asks, "So why have Romney and Ryan focused so much attention on food stamps during this election?"- your suggestion that - "it's because everybody knows who uses them...," actually uses the ambiguity of stigmatic language itself by failing to say clearly who your EVERYBODY is and who your food stamp USERS actually are! A piece on stigma and food stamps in contemporary American politics that not once mentions the poor, poverty,race and their related dynamics in political narratives is simply not serious enough. You ask how stigma of food stamps plays into the election, you find a couple of folks to interview with divergent perspectives and simply conclude that it (the stigma of food stamps) all boils down to to a "easy way in, to a "big debate," on "big or small," government. Stigma though of course is a phenomena antithetical to debate, antithetical in fact to speech of any kind. It is more accurately an "easy way" way into avoiding debate, avoiding speech, avoiding the roots of our prejudice, and masking our race, class and cultural anxiety in jargon about common sense economic and moral principles. Your unfortunate embrace of the 'big vs small government' narrative (perhaps the most iconic example of race/class anxiety posing as a political/philosophical conversation) takes a complicated,oppressive and often opaque sociological dynamic and dims the lights!
Time is certainly a factor in your business but if American journalistic pressures result so often in lite weight analysis then whats the point? I find much of Market Place Money rising above "the bar." The terribly problematic issue of stigmatic pressures in American politics however requires greater attention, examination and perhaps courage than it was afforded here. Please go deeper next time. We need it.


ET Wilson

I find the rebranding idea intriguing. I'd like to see that concept extended to corporate safety nets and tax perks. Maybe if we called the breaks businesses are given for moving jobs to other countries by a catchy name, they would become less acceptable. As for the subsidies to "big oil," what have we, the taxpayers, gotten back for those? Again, maybe a catchy name would bring them some buzz and attention from the taxpayers.

As for the socialism complained of by at least one of those interviewed in this story, I truly wish people were fined $5 for every time they misused the word, as did Wilderman here. The money could be put toward supporting the SNAP program. Who knows? It could even lead to the program turning a profit for the government. Pony up, Mr. Wilderman.

I disagree with the socialists on Marketplace Money. Any remaining stigma for social handouts (very little has remained compared to the old days of "county aid") is good and should be increased in order to encourage people to want to get off it as quickly as possible.
Increased money spent on entitlement is just as wrong as the obscene amounts of money we spend on defense, or the tax breaks allowed for the wealthy. We need limits on all of this spending if our country is to thrive again!

Boo Marketplace Boo..

Food Stamps or SNAP or any low cost program that increases nutrition for children, especially for those under the age of two, is a spectacular deal for the Country. Damage done from hunger or inability to pay attention in the classroom lasts a lifetime. Far too much time of this story was spent pandering to the right wing's make believe world where everyone can't wait to get on food stamps. Pure election year non-sense. While food stamps may be helping out a 44 year old disabled waitress, the real story is that it's probably helping out her kids a whole lot more...


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