A congressional committee is wading through a mountain of paperwork on the farm bill, which includes food stamps. / AP
“My name is Trish Thomas Henley, and I’m an assistant professor of early modern literature and culture at the University of Cincinnati. I received my B.A. and M.A. from the University of Idaho and hold a Ph.D. from Florida State University. My first book was published in 2012. I’m also a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati and a mother of four boys.
My current life – as a teacher, volunteer, published author, homeowner and middle-class taxpayer – would not have been possible without government aid. In 1993, I was a single parent with a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old. Even though I was working full-time, making $8.50 an hour as an administrative assistant, I could not afford to pay for food, housing and day care. I went on food stamps. I remember the shame I felt every time I stood at the register while other shoppers waited for me to count out my food stamps.
The only way out of the cycle of poverty and off of aid was to go to college. I applied and, at the age of 25, began my undergraduate career. I had to give up my full-time job to go to school. Instead, I worked three part-time jobs.
I would never, ever have been able to get through school without food stamps, Pell Grants and student loans. It took a village and government aid. I was not a victim. I did not feel entitled. I, then as now, felt immensely grateful that I lived at a moment when my government chose to invest in me. It has been a smart investment. I am grateful that because of this investment I am now able to contribute and live up to my full potential.
Lately we’re hearing a lot about food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as Congress debates the farm bill. We could see anywhere from $4 billion to $20 billion in cuts to SNAP, based on the Senate and House bills, respectively. I am not able to stand by and watch silently while Congress votes to allow people to go hungry while simultaneously subsidizing agribusiness.
SNAP helps lift 50 million Americans out of poverty and puts food on families’ tables – on our neighbors’ tables.
I am telling my personal story because someone needs to talk back to food stamp stereotypes and myths. Somehow, the myths persist and are used to defend the drastic cuts that have been proposed in the farm bill. If we want to save SNAP and other anti-hunger programs, it’s time for a reality check.
Myth: SNAP recipients are inner-city minorities.
Fact: Food insecurity is neither an urban issue nor an ethnic issue. Nearly one in six people faces food insecurity, and they live in every county in the nation. In addition, 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person.
Myth: People on SNAP are lazy and sign up for the program so they don’t have to work.
Fact: Eighty-five percent of households with a food-insecure child have at least one working adult. The SNAP benefit formula provides a strong work incentive – for every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns, their benefits decline by about 24 cents to 36 cents, not a full dollar. Participants have a strong incentive to find work, work longer hours or seek better-paying employment.
Myth: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.
Fact: Despite steady growth of the program over the past decade, fraud and abuse have been reduced significantly. A 2010 report from the USDA found the national rate of food stamp trafficking (the practice of trading food stamps for cash) declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1 cent per dollar.
Myth: SNAP recipients use their benefits to buy alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.
Fact: It is illegal to buy any of these things with SNAP benefits.
Myth: SNAP is an inefficient government giveaway.
Fact: SNAP benefits drive economic growth in every community. Every $1 in new SNAP benefits generates up to $1.80 of economic activity.
These benefits are investments to help struggling families realize brighter futures. My fellow SNAP alumni brothers and sisters are evidence that these investments can pay off over the long run.
I am living proof SNAP can provide the boost a struggling child or family needs to realize the American dream. This program works, and we should all speak up together to protect it.
Please write and call your representatives in Congress and urge them to vote against any cuts to SNAP. These are not just numbers. These are people – people who will go hungry. If we allow Congress to do this, we are responsible for that. You and me.”