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The Stigma of Food Stamps

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By Lindsay Gezinski, Assistant Professor, College of Social Work, University of Utah

How many times have you heard a statement like this? “A friend of a friend of a friend told me there was a woman at the grocery store buying steaks and beer with her food stamps. She was even carrying a Louis Vuitton purse! I can’t even afford those things. Why should she?”

This example is an exaggeration, but it aptly represents some of the myths that pervade our society, resulting in the vilification of food stamp recipients. This example demonstrates the myth that food stamp recipients manipulate the system and have a poor work ethic. (“If they only got a job, they wouldn’t need food stamps.”) The reality, however, is much different than the myth.

Fifty-eight percent of Utah’s food stamp recipients are children.

In Utah, the average monthly food stamp allotment per person is $123.58, which is roughly equivalent to $1.37 per meal. (The actual allotment varies, depending on a recipient’s income.) In addition to these meager benefits, food stamp recipients must adhere to strict criteria regarding what they can and cannot purchase. To qualify for the food stamp benefit in Utah, a person must be working or, if unemployed, must look for work or participate in job training.

Nearly one in six U.S. residents participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, and approximately one in 10 Utahns use food stamps.

The number of people who utilize food stamps has grown rapidly since the beginning of the economic downturn; however, the program is still severely underutilized. Stigma is one characteristic that contributes to this underutilization, acting as a barrier to initial application and/or continued participation. For instance, individuals applying for food stamp benefits or utilizing the benefit at the grocery store may experience feelings of embarrassment, shame, or discrimination. During a recent class discussion, a student of mine shared his experience of trying to apply for food stamps. He found the caseworker to be incredibly rude, discouraging him from even applying, and claiming that his possession of a laptop precluded him from accessing benefits, which is completely untrue.

Food stamps cannot be used to purchase any nonfood item (such as soap or toothpaste), alcohol, or vitamins.

Food stamp recipients may be stigmatized by grocery store employees and patrons, as well as community members, friends, and family. Many of these negative stereotypes portray food stamp recipients as standing in opposition to the American work ethic, which may contribute to their maltreatment and devaluation. Research has found that many public assistance recipients are embarrassed of their welfare status and indicate they receive derogatory comments at grocery stores, welfare offices, public health clinics, and so on. Similarly, food stamp recipients may internalize stigma, resulting in feelings of guilt, impacting their feelings of self-worth, and/or discontinuation of benefits.

Efforts have been made to address the stigma associated with food stamps. For instance, rather than the paper food stamps of old, recipients now utilize the Horizon Card, a plastic card with a magnetic strip, similar in appearance to a credit card. Such advances are helpful; however, it is imperative that negative stereotypes and discrimination are further addressed to ensure that eligible recipients feel comfortable applying for and receiving the food stamp benefit.

To dispel the stigma, it is important the general public view the program as a nutrition program rather than a “welfare” program. We must encourage our citizens and our elected officials to shift their focus from the individual recipient to the systems that make the food stamps program necessary in the first place. In these challenging economic times, it is easier for the public and politicians to scapegoat recipients of public assistance, rather than address the real problems.

The food stamps program and donations to local food banks are vital, but not enough. It is our responsibility as citizens to demand that structural problems, such as lack of jobs and insufficient wages, are the focus of the conversation rather than “victim-blaming.” Blaming the victim does little to address the problems of poverty, hunger, and need. We must actively advocate for the dismantling of these structures of oppression.

  • jamesv

    For all the students on food stamps, you can put a food stamp skin over your EBT card to protect your privacy. Bascially, a food stamp skins makes it so your ebt card doesn’t look like an obvious food stamps card. I found the site here http://www.foodstampscovers.com or search food stamps skin on google.