Food stamps: why recipients are haunted by stigmas and misconceptions

One in seven Americans receive food stamps, but misconceptions abound.

We ask Snap workers in Alabama and Texas about the challenges they face, and the most enduring myths

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Food stamps: who is eligible? Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Children. Military families. Elderly people.

Food stamp recipients are as varied as they come. The few things that these 46.5 million Americans have in common are that, often, they depend on government assistance to afford groceries – and that sometimes it becomes too easy to stereotype food stamp recipients.

Even as enrolment in food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Snap, has surged in the past five years, the program and its participants are still haunted by stigmas and misconceptions, according to outreach coordinators from Alabama, Mississippi and Texas.

In Alabama alone, enrolment in Snap has increased by 38.8% in the last five years, reaching 898,898 this past January, according to Food Research and Action Center. In Mississippi, the increase was 35.5%. As of January 2014, 22.3% of Mississippians – about 660,000 people – were enrolled in Snap. Outreach coordinators in Texas note a below-average increase in enrolment over the past five years at just 29.7%. In Texas, the second most populous state, only 15.4% of its population is currently enrolled in Snap. And while that translates into 3.87 million people, there are many more who are eligible and have yet to apply.

One in seven Americans receive food stamps. Overall, about 46.5 million Americans were enrolled in Snap in January of this year. That’s 44.5% more than in January of 2009. About 45% of that are children.

Over the past five years, these Snap recipients saw a boost in the assistance they received. Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA, starting in April 2009 four-person households received an $80 increase in their monthly Snap benefits. This increase ended in October of last year. In the years that the increase was in effect, it helped pay out additional $48b to Snap recipients. As the ARRA was about to expire, food banks across the nation prepared themselves to help fill that void. The full impact of this cut is yet to be seen, say Snap outreach co-ordinators.

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On Nov. 1, 2013 many Americans saw their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits reduced. Photograph: Leigh Vogel/Corbis

Snap outreach co-ordinators don’t have it easy. Not only are they struggling to correct misconceptions about the Snap program, but they have been battling misconceptions about the work they do as well. Last year, when the Washington Post ran its Pulitzer prize-winning series on food stamps, one of the stories followed a food-stamp recruiter, Dillie Nerios. Probably the most startling revelation of that piece – and also the most polarizing – was that the recruiter had a monthly quota to fill.

In fact, it is Nerios’s job to enroll at least 150 seniors for food stamps each month, a quota she usually exceeds. Alleviate hunger, lessen poverty: these are the primary goals of her work. But the job also has a second and more controversial purpose for cash-strapped Florida, where increasing food-stamp enrollment has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost $6 billion each year into the state. The money helps to sustain communities, grocery stores and food producers. It also adds to rising federal entitlement spending and the US debt.”

Some outreach coordinators say that the word recruitment paints a wrong picture of what it is that they do – namely, educate people about Snap and assist them with applying for Snap benefits. Rather than trying to fill quotas, they have goals that they hope to meet to get help and benefits for as many people as possible.

Below are two interviews with such coordinators – about their work, the people they meet and the troubles they face.

PJ Cowan, Snap & Government Advocacy Manager

Bay Area Food Bank in Theodore, Alabama

Service area

Our Snap outreach program is a program of Bay Area Food bank, which serves the Gulf coast area in the south. We serve south Mississippi, south Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.

It’s pretty large stretch of land that we are trying to do our work in, and then, obviously, working in a couple of different states, there are a few different aspects of the work from state to state.

When did it start?

Our programs has been operating since August 2010. We really came on board – particularly in our area – at a very serious time of need, obviously coming off of a recession in 2008, and then we had the BP oil spill in 2010. That hit the Gulf coast pretty hard, so I think we got started at a good time to be of service to folks.

Why focus on outreach?

Some folks are curious [about] why food banks are putting resources into supporting federal programs. When you look at who we are serving at the food bank, we are serving all food insecure households – all households that have challenges affording food month to month.

That’s a wide variety of folks. Some are very low-income, but some households have income that technically would be above the eligibility for Snap. So what we can do as Snap outreach program – if we can get and help as many households that are food insecure, that are going to qualify for Snap and help them get benefits that they need – we can shift more of our resources to the folks in those households that are not going to qualify.

That is the kind of a general make-up of why we operate as a food bank program. Some folks have a traditional idea of food banks as just distributing food, but what we want to do is use and leverage every program that exists that can help us end hunger. That’s what Snap does. That’s why our program exists.

What does outreach consist of?

We obviously have priority counties that we think have more need for our services – they tend to be lower in participation. We know there is a need for folks who are eligible that aren’t participating. So first and foremost, we identify those and prioritize those for our work.

Our program is really built on building partnerships in those communities. The idea is to find where households that might be eligible are already receiving community service and how we can maybe link with those services to supplement them and to also provide our help.

What we do is we provide just basic information about Snap. We have created some educational materials that correct misconceptions. They address the stigma issues, correct those, and they really just approach the program in a way that can help educate eligible households to understand what the benefits are.

What are some of the most common misconceptions?

A variety. When we look at demographics that are participating, it’s a spectrum of different demographics. We know that seniors are the highest demographic group that is not participating from their eligible population. Only a third of the eligible seniors are actually participating. They tend to be a little bit more affected by stigma.

It may be generational. A lot of seniors that grew up in the Depression, or during the war, are strong and tough folks, and they don’t necessarily feel comfortable asking for help. Or their perspective is: ‘Well, there is someone else who needs it more than I do. So I don’t want to take benefits away from someone.’

That’s really one of the most common [misconceptions] – that there is this limited number of benefits. And as we know, Snap is an entitlement, which means that there is not a cap on federal funding. It grows as the need grows, and shrinks as the need shrinks.

And then there’s this one: that people that don’t work and that are trying to abuse the system use Snap. If someone is eligible for benefits, they don’t want to be associated as one of those folks. Maybe they feel uncomfortable going in a store and using their EBT card, because someone could think they’re someone like that, they are one of those folks [that commit fraud]. That’s one of those things we try to correct. That is not the reality of the program.

There are 60% of households that have family members that are using [food] stamps and that are working. A lot of folks using Snap are employed.

Do you have any quotas that you try to meet?

That’s a pretty incorrect perspective of what Snap outreach tries to do. All we are trying to do is connect this program where there are barriers to people. For example, we serve an incredibly rural states and there is only one Bureau of Human Resources office in each county. There are a lot of folks that could really use benefits that a lot of times don’t have resources to travel a long distance just to apply for Snap. There is not good cost-to-benefit ratio for them to think that it’s worth their time or precious resources and income to make a trip to apply.

What we are trying to do is just fill in the gaps where the program is not accessible. That’s what we are funded to do. That’s why our program was created. I don’t have a lot of experience with the quota thing. What we do is just bring our services where we think there is a need for information or help with the application and then we talk to folks and if they don’t want to apply, then that’s it. We don’t push people.

Would you describe yourself as a food stamp recruiter?

Using the word recruitment … it kind of … is continuing things that aren’t true. It just leads down a path that just doesn’t even make sense. I don’t know what the thinking is from just trying to sign people up just for the sake of it.

Were people you work with afraid that they would see their benefits cuts by the recent farm bill?

Our states were not participating in the Heat and Eat program. The whole idea is that if someone is receiving home energy assistance, it’s a probably logical conclusion that they could use Snap or that they would be eligible for Snap benefits – so they made a connection to those two programs.

In some of those states, they were giving just a minimum home energy assistance benefit to households, which would qualify them for an additional deduction in Snap. Basically, just getting them more benefits. Our states were not even participating in that so the recent farm bill cut really did not have an impact on us. The biggest most recent cut was probably the ARRA Recovery Act cut that went into effect in October. And I think we are still kind of judging what the impact is there.

What were the effects of that?

There’s been probably an increased need at some of the food pantries, because of the cut in October – or really the return to benefit level before the ARRA was passed.

That was an absolute drop in benefits. I think that everyone experienced that. That’s just really unfortunate. As a food bank, we just have to keep working hard and if there is a place where we need to fill in more, that’s what we have to do.

I know last year our food bank distributed one of our highest amounts of poundage. I don’t know that was all because of that ARRA decrease, but there’s something to that. It’s safe to say that the need has definitely increased in our area.

You said you service rural areas. Are food deserts something that you see?

The food desert situation goes hand in hand with the challenges that we face. Some areas have very limited options on where you can purchase your food, and if it’s a corner store, it would likely be more expensive food or slightly more expensive than grocery store, and obviously in terms of the healthy options those are all a lot more limited.

In our state there is a program called double bucks.

It’s kind of a nation wide movement. Farmers markets that have EBT machines, that accept Snap benefits, and other Fed programs – basically double the value of the benefits that you are spending at that farmer’s market. I don’t want to say that you are getting twice the amount the food, but you are doubling the value of the benefits. It’s making it more affordable, and in a lot of places it’s kind of also supporting local produce and local farmers.

In north Alabama, they are trying to pilot some double bucks programs to see if they can develop it across the state. That’s kind of a way to address the food desert situation and it just helps to connect more low-income households with fresh food. That’s something that I am really interested in.

I have found that representatives from both sides can get behind the double bucks program. They are really supportive of it.

Melissa Helber, Social Service Outreach Manager

Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, Austin

What’s your outreach program like?

We have about six people right now who are full time, bilingual social service coordinators and we have a contract with the state of Texas through the food bank network to provide application assistance.

The state is basically trying to increase its enrolment rate, so the food banks in Texas have social services outreach program. We target areas where there are potential barriers to Snap enrolment. That can be a lot of things: literacy barriers, education barriers, people not understanding the process. It’s a very complicated. The paperwork is difficult to understand for even very educated people. It’s written in kind of a legalese, so a lot of people kind of give up on the application process. That’s what we hear a lot. So we try to break it down and demystify it and sort of help people navigate through it.

We have a helpline that we advertise throughout our service area, which is 22 counties in central Texas. So people can call in, ask questions, have a little screening to see if we can fix it and then we make them an appointment either here at the food bank or somewhere in the community that’s convenient for them for one on one consultation, where we would actually fill out the application for them.

We also do outreach events and we go to food pantries and social service provider agencies and different places where we actually try to meet with people, answer their questions, kind of find people where they are at.

Have you found that people misunderstand the nature of the program?

People don’t really understand that Snap has an unlimited pool of funds. It’s not something where there’s a cap. It’s a nutrition assistance program that is federally funded that anybody that is eligible can take advantage of it. That’s one of the [points that] we try really hard to educate folks on.

It’s not this pool of welfare money out there that is intended just for the very poor. It’s a nutrition program that is supposed to promote healthy food choices for everybody, particularly when they are in need of extra assistance.

Do you have to recruit a certain number of people who are not yet enrolled?

We are an outreach program. We don’t recruit. Capital Area food bank network and Feeding America have taken a stand against that approach of trying to convince people or trying to meet quotas for Snap enrolment. We have goals – like I said, the enrolment rate in the state is very low. There is pretty much an unlimited pool of people who really need our assistance. We help people make informed decisions and we educate people on their potential eligibility and we address the misconceptions and give them the option to apply.

What kind of areas do you work in? Do people have a problem with access to food?

In central Texas, we have quite a large service area. We have Austin, Round Rock, but then we go up to Waco. Our service area is two times the size of Massachusetts. A lot of the area that we serve is urban, but a lot of it is rural. And there is a need.

There are, oddly enough, food deserts in areas where there is no grocery store close enough to take one or two buses. People are shopping at the dollar store or the convenience story. And then in the rural areas, I’ve heard of situations where local grocery stores are unable to afford the debit machine to accept the Snap card so that’s actually an issue as well. In both rural and urban areas, there’s issues with food access.

Have the changes in farm bill affected you?

Sara Peralta, communications manager: Not in the way it has some other states. I think when people think farm bill, the first thing that comes to mind is – how is this affecting low-income families? We were not directly impacted, but the overall network of food assistance, hunger relief across the United States has been affected.

In November, we saw that our clients had a reduction in benefits and that had to do a lot with how the overall stimulus money [the ARRA] was being injected into Snap funds – that boost ended prematurely from our perspective. A lot of families saw a significant decrease in their amount of set benefits on the month to month basis.

Melissa Helber: It was about $30 to $50. We found out about it a little bit before it happened and we were able to soften the blow of a little. And kind of educate the people on: ‘This is happening.’

It happened at an interesting time – right before the holidays. That was definitely a struggle. A lot of folks when it happened were kind of prepared for it, because they are a little bit used to this kind of thing happening with HHC and they are used to getting a letter that says, ‘Your benefits are going down for this reason or that.’

In a strange way, it wasn’t as much of a shock.

Why are some of these Americans hesitant to apply?

There are stigmas associated with Snap. We have tried to change the perception of Snap to focus more on the nutrition assistance program as opposed to a welfare program, which is truly what it is. The biggest reason, that I experience is the complication of the process to be honest. People apply and they get denied and they don’t know why they got denied and they can’t understand the letters that they were sent and they just assumed that they can’t have the benefits. So they don’t try again. That happens all the time. It’s very common.

In calling the hotline, to ask those questions – there is almost like a trick to it. It’s really complicated to just call and get a hold of somebody. I think this is probably a problem across the country and in Texas in particular. So people just throw up their hands and say ‘Ok, I guess this just isn’t for me.’

You mentioned denial letters. What are some of the reasons for denial when people should consider reapplying?

There are two things. Failure to provide information – so basically, when you apply for Snap benefits, you have to provide verification of every little aspect of your life. After you apply, you do an interview with the workers, they send you a letter with the list of things and inevitably if it’s not everything that they wanted, they’ll just deny your case. That’s probably the most common.

Another thing that happens a lot is something called management. One of their eligibility determinators is management, which means how are you managing finances in your household. If someone has negative management, they will actually be denied for that. It means they are going to take your income, and they are going to compare it to your expenses, and see if your income is less than your stated expenses. They are basically looking to see if there is any form of income that you are not telling them about. It happens all the time.

I have a client [who says], ‘I am not paying my rent. I don’t pay my car payment. I don’t have any money. I have been borrowing money.’ ‘OK, well, if you have been borrowing money, let me get a signed letter from a person who has loaned you money.’ And it kind of just goes from there. It becomes just a huge kind of complicated thing.

People are really shocked to hear that they got denied because they don’t have enough money to pay their bills. This happens all the time.

What kind of people tend to come to you for help?

There are families that will kind of preface their conversation with you with about how they never thought they would be in this situation and how embarrassed they are. They worked really hard and they can’t believe they are doing this. Then there are people who are older, who are receiving social security and it’s kind of a part of their fixed income. Then there are people who are just trying to get by and this is something that’s helping them. It’s really across the board, all kinds of people from all walks of life that access Snap and our services. And that’s what we want. We want people to feel like it’s for them and to take advantage of it.

Is there a particular group of people might be more concerned about stigma than another?

Yes. Particularly seniors. Seniors as a rule do not like to identify as a person who is needy, and so that’s definitely something where we have had to help with.

And people in rural areas as well. Our mobile pantry distribution … I’ve gone out and tried to do Snap outreach. They are at a food pantry getting food assistance, but they still aren’t comfortable with applying for Snap, because of the connotations that has.

What are some of the best ways to reach people like the elderly?

The approach that I take is trying to kind of normalize it and make people feel and understand that there is nothing inherently wrong or shameful with needing or accessing some assistance. Lots of people over 60 get prescription assistance [like] Medicare. Lots of people over 60 are receiving social security benefits. This is just another one of those things. Kind of approach it from that angle.

You worked really hard all your life, you’ve paid into the system. You’ve been working for a number of years, this is your time to really take advantage of the system that you’ve helped to support throughout your whole life. I think if the people just hear that, they get a little bit of a reassurance then it’s easier for them to accept the assistance.

Sara Peralta: We definitely want to emphasize that Snap is an important part of the support system. Many times, there is a stereotype of folks who are on benefits. Overwhelmingly we see folks for whom this is a last resort. They want to be working. They want to be financially independent. This is just a means to an end for them. For many folks, it’s a temporary assistance, which is the point. We want folks to be accessing this resource so they can pay their bills, they can be on time with their mortgage and do all of those things so that they don’t lose ground financially. And they can be getting back on their feet while they are looking for job, they can be accessing Snap. While their kids are not in school and their mom has to stay home to watch her kids, they can be accessing Snap.

Another issue is that there is a lot of exaggeration about the rate of Snap fraud. SNAP fraud is extremely rare. Most of the services are for folks who are in tough times, and they are just doing this to survive.