We Need To Dispel The Dangerous Myth That Families On Food Stamps Are 'Just Lazy'

by Wendy Wisner
anucha maneechote / Shutterstock

As you may have heard, the Trump administration is proposing a brand-spanking-new budget for 2018 that is basically a giant fuck-you to the majority of Americans, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Trump’s proposed budget would make deep cuts to most public assistance programs, including Medicaid, Social Security’s disability program, and SNAP benefits (food stamps).

But the really mind-boggling thing is how the administration has tried to save face about all this — to justify these proposed cuts by saying those Americans who receive public assistance really just need to work harder, insinuating that families who receive public assistance are “lazy” and don’t deserve the help.

As someone whose family has been a recipient of Medicaid and SNAP in the past, I was particularly irked pissed the fuck off by comments that were made in May by Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, with regard to families who receive SNAP benefits.

As NPR reports, Mulvaney stressed that one of the purposes of a program like SNAP is to help get families back on their feet again. I think we can get on board with that, right? Food stamps can really help a family who is struggling. The problem is the way Mulvaney put it, suggesting that SNAP beneficiaries as a whole aren’t working while they receive the benefits, which is actually incorrect.

“If you’re on food stamps and you’re able-bodied, we need you to go to work,” Mulvaney said. “If you’re on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be — if you’re not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”

Mulvaney seems to be implying that people receiving SNAP do not work, and that if only they would get their asses in gear and work for their paychecks, they wouldn’t actually need the assistance. Or to put it more accurately, the government wouldn’t need to spend all their precious money on “these people.”

But as NPR points out, Mulvaney’s point is far from accurate. The fact is, while some SNAP beneficiaries are out of work, many are working; the problem is that they are not earning enough to live on (hello: the federal minimum wage is still $7.25, so this shouldn’t be exactly surprising).

“Many people (44%) who rely on SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps is now known — have at least one person in the family working,” NPR explains. “And when it comes to families on SNAP with kids, a majority — 55% — are bringing home wages.” (For more stats on all this, check out this report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

It should be noted (and maybe Mr. Mulvaney didn’t exactly get the memo?) that SNAP already has a provision written into it that beneficiaries need to start working at a certain point if they aren’t already.

“SNAP already requires able-bodied adults without children to find a job within three months and to work at least 20 hours a week or lose their benefits,” NPR reports, noting that a ton of Americans rely on SNAP benefits, about 42 million people currently.

The problem, of course, isn’t just the inaccuracy here, or the fact that Mulvaney’s statement is being used to justify a $191-billion cut to SNAP benefits over the next decade (yes, you read that right). It’s the fact that inaccuracies like this point to a larger problem: the stigmatization and mythologizing of families on food stamps.

And this shit has got to end. Pronto.

So let’s start right here. No, families who receive public assistance aren’t “lazy,” mooching off the system, or some such utterly offensive nonsense like that. Many families fell into poverty because of widespread systemic and social problems in our country, including the race and socioeconomic class they were born into. Others came upon shitty luck, or a recession, or a wave of layoffs that struck their family without warning.

Again, the majority of families receiving public assistance are working (or looking for work). It’s just that what constitutes a living wage for many Americans is simply not enough. And work opportunities don’t necessarily abound, especially in higher-paying fields.

And let’s get something else straight right here: Public assistance works. SNAP benefits, for example, have been shown to help reduce the overall poverty rate. Medicaid is another example of public assistance making a difference: As of March 2017, it covered 74,600,261 Americans who otherwise would not have received health insurance (yes, that is a great big freaking number), including 36 million children.

When my family was on SNAP, my husband was working two part-time jobs and going on job interviews. I was pregnant and had a newborn, but I worked part-time as well, around my husband’s schedule. SNAP did not cover our entire grocery bill (it is income-based and not all families receive the same amount), but it made it possible for us to continue providing balanced meals for our family during our time of struggle.

The thing that I will always remember about receiving public assistance was that it was not an easy process to qualify for it, and we had to work hard to continue receiving it. It was not an “easy way out,” did not feel at all like a “handout,” and was something I hesitated to share with others for fear of being shamed or belittled.

Cutting assistance programs isn’t just mean — it’s dangerous and may very well cost the lives of families and children across America. Not only that, but espousing falsehoods about people who are receiving the assistance only makes it harder for them to feel empowered to go out and get what they need and deserve.

None of us know when financial demise may fall on us. None of us are as safe as we would like to believe. And those Americans who are in a vulnerable financial position deserve compassion more than anything else. They deserve to be heard and respected. And most of all, they deserve the to receive basics like healthcare, food, and shelter without being shamed in the process.