National Edition

How food stamps keep families in a cycle of poverty

Published: Friday, Sept. 6 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Many families pay for groceries with food stamps.

Mercedes White, via Andrew Henderson for the New York Times

On a recent Monday evening, 6-year-old Esther lugged a jar of Nutella from the kitchen into the living room where her mother Melissa, nine months pregnant, rested on the sofa in their modest Utah County home. Esther held the jar out to her mother, smiling shyly as she asked for permission to have some. Melissa let out a gentle sigh as she unscrewed the lid. “Not too much,” she said as she handed the jar back to her daughter. In one week she may not be able to give her daughter luxuries like a spoonful of Nutella.

Until recently, Melissa and her husband Jimmy received $400 a month from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Combined with the $21,000 Jimmy earns as a security guard at a local hospital, it was just enough to feed their four (soon to be five) children ages 2 to 10.

Since 2007, the number of Americans on SNAP has exploded, going from approximately 22 million people at the start of the recession in 2008 to more than 45 million in 2013. The program provides these families a much-needed safety net as they struggle to get back on their feet, according to Jennifer Brooks, policy director with the progressive Corporation for Enterprise Development based in Washington, D.C.

Jimmy and Melissa say they would like to get off food stamps altogether and be on their own, but the rules governing eligibility for the program make it hard. In particular, federal policy stipulates that no matter how small the income or how large the family, persons with assets more than $2,000 — which include savings accounts — are not eligible to take part in SNAP.

According to many social policy experts, this rule needs to be changed. “Asset tests impede the process of moving from dependence on government assistance to self-sufficiency,” said Michael Sherraden, professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. Savings are an important part of economic development, he said. “In order to develop capacity, families and communities must accumulate assets and invest for long-term goals.”

A safety net of three months worth of living expenses can ensure that low-income families have some cushion when their car breaks down or work hours get cut, said Brooks. “It will be the difference between going right back on government assistance when an unexpected expense comes up and being able to absorb the cost and remain self-sufficient.”

Wrong to save

Melissa and Jimmy didn’t know about the asset limitation when they decided to put a $3,000 tax refund into a savings account. The couple was eager to get off government assistance as soon as possible. “I never thought I would be in a position where we needed this kind of help,” Jimmy said. Putting some money aside for unexpected expenses and towards a down payment on a home seemed like important first steps.

Several months after depositing their refund, the couple received notice that their food-stamp benefits would be cut at the end of July. The couple understands why the rule exists, but they said it came as an unexpected blow. “You don’t want people with no income and $50,000 in savings taking government benefits,” Jimmy said, “but that isn’t what was going on here. They need to look at the totality of the situation.”

Melissa and Jimmy weren’t sure what to do. Without SNAP they’d need to use their nest egg to feed their family, defeating the purpose of saving in the first place. Not only would they lose their savings, their monthly food budget would go from $400 on SNAP to $250. As she looked at the numbers, Melissa wasn't sure if she could feed six people on that. Though the family eats modestly on SNAP, there is room for some fresh fruits and vegetables and the occasional treat. Without SNAP, the only way they could get by is by cutting out fresh produce altogether. Melissa is reluctant to go this route: "I'm worried this kind of diet will jeopardize my kids' health," she said.

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