7 days on food stamps – Day 4: Community

It snowed last night, so we made a snowman:


Christy will likely correct me when reads this; technically, she and our neighbors made the snowman. I just showed up during a break from working remotely to be in the picture.

Today’s theme is community. Christy and I depend on each other for planning, cooking, and moral support. Christy spent hours planning her meals and preparing a precise, well-researched shopping list. And we often do save money by preparing meals for two. Even though I could get more SNAP money if I were living alone, it would cost me more. Let me explain.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to even imagine living on $2.83 a day by myself.

The SNAP law has complex calculations do define people as part of “households” and adjust benefits accordingly. The legalese differs from the African communal understanding of society and welfare because it aims to define a formula for who is most deserving of what, rather than just calculate what a body needs to be healthy and give everyone the same benefit.

Roomers and boarders are not considered as part of a household if they pay a reasonable compensation for their room and board (ref), but moving in with one’s parents does end the benefit – because related people are part of a household. However, if one rents a room in a house (as I’ve often done) and shares meals/cooking with the landlord/roommate, these people are the same household.

The rules around income are quite messy too. Monthly net income limits for SNAP in DC is $958 for one person or $1,293 for two. For comparison, the rent for the last five places I have lived was $1600/3 people, $1200/2 people, $700, $975, and $600 — yielding an average of $681 in monthly rent. If I were on food stamps and making the maximum allowable salary, rent would be 71% of my total take home pay; clearly, few recipients earn exactly the maximum allowable monthly income. Working 35 hours a week and earning minimum wage yields $1155 a month, making one ineligible for food stamps, yet too poor to afford anything but rent ($681) and $474 for food, transportation, healthcare, and egads – entertainment.

That’s why many poor people will work 20 hours a week – earning $660 a month – and collect $170 more in food stamps for a total of $840/month in earnings. It allows them to spend the the other 20 hours of “free time” swapping child care services with other poor people. I did not factor in the $188-$253 per week they would need in childcare in the US, according to the United Way, but they must. There simply is no way to survive without community; Healthcare  ($122/month) and “professional” childcare ($800/month) are simply out of reach.

My rent is higher because I save a lot of time and money biking to the higher-paying jobs that exist in downtown DC, so moving farther away would not dramatically increase my savings when you factor in the extra hours I can work and the reduced cost of transportation. The poor must live together to survive, and they must live near their workplaces. This gives landlords immense power over the poor.

Today for breakfast I had oatmeal, banana, then after snow walking, blueberry pancakes (which are surprisingly affordable). Three pancakes cost $0.66 compared to a PB&J sandwich ($0.62).

For dinner, mac-n-cheese ($0.45), an apple ($0.42), and steamed cabbage ($0.33). The cabbage was so good, Christy wanted me to cook another pot of it.

My daily total was $2.48! I actually saved 35 cents towards Valentine’s day tomorrow!

Christy was feeling sick. She splurged on some get-well staples, including medication and chicken soup. Yesterday we posted a picture of our $11.50 in groceries. What we didn’t post was another $50 in non-food-stamp items we needed to keep the house running:

day three bought beyond food stamps allowance

There is no “emergency” fund in the food stamps budget. In fact, a household with more than $2000 in savings (not counting a house) is immediately ineligible. As these non-food supplies were 5 times more expensive than the regular food budget (medicine is expensive), the system reinforces the need for people to rely on neighbors, friends and community in order to survive.

This revelation came as a surprise to me. I thought the government was responsible for the “social safety net” but that is simply not the case. What would I do for the 30 days it took to get on the program? What would I do for the 5 days if I qualified for emergency benefits? (You must have less than $150 in wealth to qualify)

Christy struggled to keep up this self-imposed austerity experiment, but she was with it in spirit, spending only $4.58 on a day when she was sick and wanted to end it.

3 thoughts on “7 days on food stamps – Day 4: Community

  1. Dear Marc,

    I am enjoying reading your food stamp experiment. Some things are not new to me. I know that family is everything and helps a person survive. I have been to the home of one of my ESL students. There were many people living in the house. That helps them survive.

    In my genealogy research I found my great grandfather and wife and child living with his sister, her husband and her child. The sister stayed home and ran the house and babysat both children while the two men and the one woman worked in the factory.

    In more recent times, remember, Michelle and children lived with us for 5 years because she could not pay for everything she needed plus day care.. even with some help from social services. She had a good college level job but could only pay for day care, car insurance and car upkeep and helped every third week by buying all the food.

    When Mike lost his job, he learned to cook his own food instead of eating out and gave up movies for 1 1/2 years. He also had to use money from his 401 K to keep his condo.

    I guess you have just been lucky so far. Right now it is your choice to see how little you can get by with. It is really terrible when you don’t have that choice. Family is important.


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