Tyra Gardner knew the meal she and her two sons were likely to be sharing this Thanksgiving in the Brooklyn shelter they call home wouldn't be anything fancy. She stood Tuesday in the middle of a waiting room in St. John's Bread and Life Soup Kitchen in New York City, her exhausted toddler sleeping on her shoulder and her 5-year-old tugging at the hem of her canvas coat out of boredom. The single mom, who had just left an abusive relationship weeks before, was waiting in line for a bag of carefully selected groceries that would feed them through the holiday.
Garner, 25, and her two children are typical of the families relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- which has been demonized by Republican presidential candidates recently. Poor, disadvantaged and usually employed at least part-time, struggling parents rely on the government every day to put food on the table for their kids. It’s a profile of poverty that has become increasingly common in the past decade and a half, and one that draws a sharp contrast to the extravagant spreads of turkey and side dishes commercialized as America’s annual day of feasting.
“If I didn’t have the benefits that I have, I don’t think I could” survive, said Garner, who earns about $10 an hour as a part-time home health aide worker. Her food stamps provide her family about $4.50 a day altogether. “I couldn’t buy them sneakers or clothes – and they’re growing fast,” she said of how government assistance helps her children.
The SNAP program has gotten increasingly polarized in American politics over the past 15 years and has recently become a talking point on the presidential campaign trail. While Democrats largely embrace the social welfare program, known colloquially as food stamps, Republican presidential candidates like front-runner Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have described the program’s shortcomings and inefficiencies as signs of failure. The solution, many Republicans say, is to simply get more people on payrolls and off of food stamps. Giving handouts, the argument goes, makes the givers complicit in poverty. Ending dependency, they say, is true compassion.
"We have 93 million people out of the labor force, we have 50 million people in poverty, we have 43 million -- and now it's actually going to be probably closer to 50 million -- people on food stamps," Trump said last week at a Massachusetts campaign rally.
Carson, polling second behind Trump, has also been critical of government assistance programs. "I’m not interested in getting rid of the safety net," he said earlier this year. "I’m interested in getting rid of dependency, and I want us to find a way to allow people to excel in our society."
Between 2001 and 2012 -- during administrations with presidents from both sides of the aisle -- the number of people on SNAP benefit rolls increased to a program high of 47.8 million before dropping to the current level of 45.5 million, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But the continuing perception of those individuals as lounging on the couch while the government pays their bills is misleading at best: More than 50 percent of SNAP households with at least one working-age and able adult has someone in the workforce, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Eighty percent of such families work in either the year before or after they receive benefits.
“Politicians have long used these social programs and the hatred of Americans about social programs to get ahead,” Kathryn Edin, a Bloomberg distinguished professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and a leading scholar on food stamps in the U.S., said Tuesday. “It’s an easy target because there are no constituents. Politicians are not afraid of food stamp recipients like they are of people who collect Social Security. Social programs are always vulnerable to attack because of the political process.”
The SNAP program is strictly monitored by the USDA, which distributes the money to states in block grants and ensures that recipients don’t receive more than the amount they’re eligible for. The maximum monthly allotment depends on the number of people in the household and income. A single person can receive up to $194 a month in aid. A family of three can receive no more than $511 a month. The benefit dollars, which are distributed to cards that function similar to a credit or debit card, can only be used to buy food, not other necessities like toilet paper and diapers. Needless to say, holidays are a challenge, with Americans expected to go all-out and average spending of $50.11 for the typical Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“It’s still not enough. I have to provide diapers, wipes, shoes, clothes – you know, everything,” Garner said of her food stamps benefits. She wants to work more for extra spending money but recognizes that taking on extra cases at work would bring its own problems. “How could I, anyway," she said. "Who’s going to watch my kids?”
SNAP benefits are increasingly the only welfare option available to poor Americans. Following welfare reforms in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, the number of enrollees in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides cash to pregnant women and families with one or more dependent children, has plummeted. The point of that legislation was to promote personal responsibility, and in doing so ended entitlement to welfare dollars. Whereas before if an individual proved need they would get aid, today that help comes with a five-year lifetime limit and other time stipulations. The result is that food stamp-eligible people apply and get that aid, but fewer people use or are eligible for the TANF system.
“We’re the only major industrialized nation with food stamp benefits, because most other nations trust poor people with cash. We don’t,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a former Clinton aid. The nonprofit he represents released an extensive study on hunger Tuesday that confirms that most food-insecure people are working.
"Some people like Trump and the Republicans begrudge giving people food stamps, but in general food stamps have been less controversial than cash benefits. They've tried to make the public think that food stamps are welfare, but even George W. Bush's administration pushed back on that idea," Berg said.