One time, somebody told me I “didn’t look like someone” who needed SNAP benefits to help pay for groceries. Understandably, I was taken aback by such a comment. I’m not sure what I could do to look financially needy. No matter how I look, or how people perceive me to look, I needed the benefits to keep food on the table for my family.
There is a common misconception that to receive government assistance, you must look the part. I wonder, what does “looking the part” entail? Do people expect you to show up at the grocery store in tattered clothes? Do you need to wear a perpetual look of being downtrodden to prove how badly you need government help?
To even apply for government benefits, let alone receive them, a person must meet certain criteria, which means that many people receiving SNAP and other public benefits are people who look…gasp…regular. We’re wearing regular clothes, driving regular cars, and using our regular iPhones (or in my case, an Android).
Just because someone has their hair styled or they carry a nice purse doesn’t mean much of anything. Driving a newer model car doesn’t always mean you’re financially flush. Having the latest smartphone isn’t an indication of wealth. Cars and smartphones are a necessity today.
Lots of people see someone using SNAP benefits pulling out a smartphone and have feelings about it. Plenty of assumptions are made about how they could possibly afford it, or why they need it. But you literally never know where they got that phone. Maybe they bought it refurbished off of Amazon or eBay. Maybe they’re doing like I do, and paying it off in monthly installments. Or maybe it was a gift, or is paid for by their employer. No matter how they got it, however, owning one doesn’t make them any less in need of help paying their grocery bill. Especially when we’re living in a time when not having a smartphone cuts you off from so much of the world — including jobs that will help someone earn a living.
As a full-time working single mom, I need to have a phone that has internet access. Sometimes my boss has an urgent need, but I also need to pick my son up from school. On days where he doesn’t have school, I can usually be found doing work projects from a picnic table while he plays at the playground. Other times, I have a work event or meetings to attend while he’s at school, and I need to be reachable in an emergency.
A phone is essential as a parent. Everything school-related is done electronically, often through an app. My son’s school uses one app to keep parents up to date about programs days off, etc., but his teacher uses an entirely different app to communicate with parents. Sometimes she’ll send midday messages, so if I didn’t have a smartphone, I could miss something important.
What people seem to forget is this: SNAP, aka the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” is just that, a supplement. That means it picks up the slack. Most families who receive SNAP aren’t making enough to cover an entire month’s worth of groceries. Just like every other government program, your benefits are calculated based on your household income.
Before you start blaming folks for “abusing the system,” remember that that misuse of food stamps is actually really low. According to the Agriculture Department, the program has “one of the lowest fraud rates for federal programs,” with only about 1% of benefits illegally sold for cash. Not only that but CBS News reports that Moody’s Analytics estimated that every $1 of food stamp spending creates about $1.70 in economic activity, more than the benefit from tax cuts or boosting defense spending.
I’m a single mom supporting myself and my son. We live in a studio apartment, and I live within my means, but groceries are expensive, especially when you have a growing kid who eats his weight in fresh fruit weekly. When we first moved out on our own, SNAP was a big help for me. I didn’t have to worry as much about being able to afford food and I could make sure my son was eating healthfully.
I certainly felt the stigma of using SNAP though. The card is glaringly obvious. It doesn’t make you feel great when you pull it out at the grocery store when there’s a line of people behind you and a cashier staring you down. My clothes aren’t particularly flashy, but I enjoy looking put together. So I’m sure people would look at me swiping my SNAP card, wondering why on earth I was using one in the first place.
No one’s outward appearance is an indicator of wealth, unless you’re a goddamn Kardashian. Most regular folks are wearing the same pair of Old Navy jeans they bought five years ago. And if they do have new-ish clothes, buying things on sale isn’t uncommon. I can’t tell you the last time I bought any item of clothing at full price. Not in my budget. But, that’s also not any of your business.
People who judge others receiving SNAP benefits fail to remember something very important. That is, many of the families who you see daily are living paycheck to paycheck. Getting government benefits are a way for them to alleviate a little pressure from their razor-thin budgets, and they may be temporarily using them to get through a rough patch. That seemingly nice car they drive? It may be nearly a decade old, and if it needs repairs, that could easily leave them choosing between rent and a mechanic. They need their car to get to work to make money to pay the bills, and you can see how the cycle goes.
If you see someone tucking their SNAP card into a nice wallet or purse, stop yourself before you make any sort of judgment. To assume that they’re clearly too rich for food stamps is asinine. You can’t “look” poor, and not everyone who receives benefits is “poor.” Many working families receive benefits like SNAP to keep them from being impoverished. There are plenty of people who don’t look like they’d need help, but that is a seriously subjective measurement riddled with personal biases and stereotypes. Material possessions, especially ones like a phone or a car, are necessities — whether you are ready to admit that or not. They are necessary to take care of kids, and to retain (or find) employment.
So, let’s make it our goal for 2020 to ditch our judgment and worry about ourselves. We’re all just out here doing our best.
This article was originally published on