Food Stamp Stigma

foodstampmapNew Orleans One day I write that receiving food stamps is the “new normal,” as we say in New Orleans, and the next day there’s a front page story in the Sunday Times by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff with a headline that includes the words:  “stigma fades.” Wow!  Am I ahead of the curve or what?

Probably “or what?”

Looking county-to-county and expounding on the research of Professor Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis, there are plenty of “I told you so” points the story makes:

    • Almost 1 in 8 people in the USA are on stamps.  More than 36 million people.
    • Almost 25% of the nation’s children are on stamps.
    • Cities like Memphis, New Orleans, and St. Louis have more than half of their children on stamps.
    • Racial differences in participation are significant with 28% of African-Americans, 15% Latinos, and 8% whites.
    • The head of the federal program is clear that, in the words of Citizen Wealth, we need “maximum eligible participation,” and must enroll the 15-16 million people who are not yet enrolled.
    • The key one can find in reaching many of the new enrollees, as I have demanded in Citizen Wealth, is outreach.

I could go on, but it would get boring, and the point of this piece is not crowing.  Quite the opposite.

Reading the article, just like being on the streets and out on the trail, I could not find the any real evidence for the proposition that the “stigma”  of receiving food stamps is fading, as trumpeted by the headlines.  In fact the actual interviews in the story, particularly with recent white participants who have signed up for the program, all seemed to carry the weight of regret, shame, and sense of exceptionalism about their own participation in the program that I have found talking to my Tea Party friends.  Where whites are still 1 of 12 compared to blacks now moving to almost 1 in 3, the stigma still seems certain and stunning, and a huge barrier to enrollment.

The barrier seems to only collapse for two reasons from what I can tell on close examination of the story’s argument:  (1) desperation pure and simple (which hardly reduces the stigma) and (2) outreach where someone convinces a recalcitrant but eligible family that they need to enroll for the good of their family, particularly the children.

Nothing about this story signaled to me “problem solved.”  Instead the only real point seemed to be that in one beautifully written sentence:  “Across the country, the food stamp rolls can be read like a scan of a sick economy.”

Where Under Secretary Kevin Concannon is right, and the article (or at least the gratuitous and missleading headline is wrong!) is that now is an opportunity to finally have the federal, state, and city governments put up, so that others will shut up about the fake dependency of receiving some benefits that help working families take care of their families.  There is something so fatally wrong about a society that would invest more weight (and the attendant psychic damage) in having people care about what their neighbors think and their potential scorn, than in the first priority of making sure that your family is taken care of fully no matter what.

Changing the name of the program from food stamps to SNAP, and talking about nutrition rather than hunger, are not real changes, nor will they help us get the rest of the job done and done permanently, not just during these desperate times.  We need a real effort that puts thousands of staff, volunteers, and others on the street and in the job centers to make and win the case to get all eligible families enrolled.

Stimulate that, Obama Administration!

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