Over in the Washington Post today, they do a flattering article on Montgomery County officials who are spending just $25 on food for the next five days, “an attempt to simulate the everyday fact of life for residents enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.”
They’re only the latest lawmakers to announce to the world they’ll be doing this; District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have also done the same, garnering quite a bit of press attention in the process.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program served over 46 million people in an average month last year, with that amounting to 75 percent of those eligible and 65 percent of those classified “working poor.” The average monthly payment is $133.48.
You can find the income eligibility tables here; for a family of four it’s about $29,976, a level I think that a broad consensus would agree is indeed low-income (presuming recipients are accurately reporting all of their income). (Before you gasp, “and that’s before taxes!” note that about 62 percent of those making $30,000 or less pay no income tax.)
Of course, it’s extremely difficult to feed yourself, much less a family, on $25 for five days. But the title of the program itself makes clear that it’s not meant to be the sole source of your ability to afford food; it is specifically labeled supplemental. As CNN reporter Christine Romans noted, “The government designs it so this is on top of what little money you might have, food pantries, soup kitchens. Some people are getting meals quite frankly in schools and the like, like kids are getting, you know, two meals a day in schools.”
When asked about this, Booker complained that the media spends too much time discussing “the pregnancy of a princess” and not enough time discussing poverty. Fine, but let’s be clear that these politicians aren’t really “simulate the everyday fact of life” for SNAP recipients, they’re simulating a slightly worse situation.
The lawmakers, giving the media detailed lists of their food purchases to let us know just how compassionate they are, are actually attempting to get by by spending less than most recipients, who can afford to spend more than $5 per day. With low incomes, it may not be much more than that, but at least they have the option.
If the argument is that the amount of assistance offered to each individual and household receiving SNAP ought to be increased, then fine, let’s have that argument. Americans are a kind and generous people. But we could do with fewer lawmakers rushing to tell the press just how virtuous they are because they’ve decided to eat very little for five days.