One lesson Jacob learned while he lived on $800 per month was the joy of large bulk cereal bags. Offbrand Fruit Loops, he said, taste just as good as regular Fruit Loops.
“I had enough to get by, and if it was a really good week, I could have waffles and syrup instead of boring stuff. You would splurge on the nicer brands. That was a treat,” Jacob said.
Today, Jacob, who asked to be identified only by his first name, lives a life that’s pretty standard for a college student: He’s enrolled as an undergraduate in the urban planning program at Ohio University and has worked various on- and off-campus jobs.
But about 10 years ago, while Jacob was working with AmeriCorps in Athens County on improving public health, his employer encouraged him and his peers to apply for SNAP benefits to help AmeriCorps employees better understand what people living in poverty experienced.
SNAP gives low-income individuals and families nutrition assistance and is the largest “program in the domestic hunger safety net,” according to its website. The program and its users are also regular targets of fraud accusations.
This summer, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost published a report on fraudulent behavior associated with Ohio’s $2.5 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2015. The report included 36 instances of dead people receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, and $1.2 million worth of excessive balances.
But the report did not touch on societal stereotypes associated with food stamp abusers, such as the Welfare Queen, a term coined by former President Ronald Reagan that refers to women — usually black — who live showy lives using welfare benefits.
These stereotypes, however, overlook misconceptions and stigmas surrounding foods stamps, as well as nuances of SNAP “fraud” when it does happen and steps taken by government agencies to reduce it.
Photo by Olivia Miltner
When Janice Brewer worked Shagbark’s Farmers Market stand, she said approximately five percent of customers used food stamps. Other buyers, like the woman in this photo, used cash or other forms of payment.
Although Jacob’s income made him eligible for food stamps, he still worried that his middle-class background could create the perception that he was getting public assistance unfairly.
“Swiping the SNAP card wasn’t something that I took pride in, and it wasn’t something that I thought of was really a benefit. It was subsistence,” Jacob said. “It wasn’t a source of shame necessarily, but I felt like if someone saw me using it they would judge me, especially if they knew me before I was in AmeriCorps, they’d have been like, ‘Why’s he taking advantage of the system?’”
Regardless of negative stereotypes, Jacob is one of many people who have used SNAP benefits in their lives. According to a Pew Research poll, about 18 percent of U.S. adults used food stamps before 2012.
Graphic by Kylie Hulver
“I’m fortunate enough to come from a middle class background, so I didn’t (use my family safety net) while I was in AmeriCorps, but I knew that I had a family safety net,” Jacob said. “I could sort of pretend, but I wasn’t in the same situation of generational poverty for some people or just misfortunes of life or chance.”
Participation rates in SNAP reached a peak in 2013, when over 47.6 million people received the program’s benefits. Since then, the participation rate has dropped to around 45.7 million people in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Janice Brewer has used SNAP benefits since graduating from OU in December 2015. She worked for Shagbark Seed and Mill before taking an AmeriCorps position through Community Food Initiatives, where she now works with community gardens.
As with Jacob, the stipend Brewer earns through AmeriCorps makes her eligible for food stamps. However, she also supplements her income informally by picking and selling berries, babysitting and doing farm work. She said she doesn’t always report this money partly because the process for changing income is hard, and the extra work is highly variable.
“I want to be able to save for my future, so all the money that I get from those side jobs that I do I put in savings so I can set myself up better in the future so I don’t have to rely on government assistance,“ Brewer said.
Photo by Olivia Miltner
The Athens Farmers Market recently received a grant to give 10 extra dollars worth of SNAP benefits to shoppers for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
Although Ohio saw a 14-percent decrease in the cost of SNAP coupons issued from 2013 to 2015, the state has not seen a decrease in intentional program violations, or when an “individual purposely attempts to defraud the SNAP system,” Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Public Information Officer Emma Henterly said in an email.
According to data from the ODJFS, 2015 saw the highest total dollar amount of IPV claims in the past three years, totalling over $4.4 million.
Brewer speculated that some people might underreport incomes to ensure they receive government support.
“You have to supplement it somehow, and sometimes it feels like you have to lie about it,” Brewer said. “If you’re $100 away from the poverty line, of course you’re going to ‘work less’ because by making that 100 more dollars a year, it’s not going to help you. It’s just going to not give you access to more resources.”
Nationally, SNAP fraud equals about one cent per dollar, according to Alan Shannon, public affairs director of the Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Regional Office. He noted that although the dollar amount attributed to fraud is “significant,” it makes up a small percentage of total program costs, which came in at just under $74 billion in 2015.
Graphic by Kylie Hulver
In contrast to Jacob’s concern of being perceived as unfairly using public assistance,or Brewer’s informal supplemental income, most people “who work the system” try to claim self-employment without doing work hours, said Carolyn Trout, the family service and benefit recovery supervisor at the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services.
“Some of these people (who) claim self-employment never worked a day in their life,” Trout said.
Trout has written up more than $331,000 in overpayments — which happen when people receive more money than they should — since she started her job in June 2015, according to Athens County DJFS data. This is about 2 percent of Athens’ $15 million worth of coupons issued in 2015.
Although overpayments also include mistakes or misunderstandings that result in a person receiving too much money, Trout said overpayments are still representative of fraudulent behavior. She also said she believes the requirements attached to SNAP are effective at making sure only those who need the benefits receive them.
Photo by Olivia Miltner
Janice Brewer works at the Athens Farmers Market for CFI on the weekends. The Farmers Market is also where she spends a lot of her SNAP benefits, which she sees as “taking the government’s hand and putting it into the local food system one food stamp dollar at a time.”
“If they are truly needy and truly needing these food stamps, they’ll do what they need to do to keep the food stamps. If they’re just using the system then they don’t care whether they work or not,” Trout said. “The people that are truly needy and really want to help themselves, it really does help them out.”
Brewer said although she was able to successfully navigate the application process, she worries that other people with less access to resources like technology, such as poor residents in rural Athens County, could potentially have a difficult time applying for the program.
“It comes down to an access thing, Brewer said. “Access to information of how to get food stamps, access to information about how to even cook healthy foods, access to other sources of income that allow you to supplement your income in order to buy the produce that seemingly costs more.”
Photo by Olivia Miltner
Brewer said the government should focus on helping people make healthy decisions by rebuilding communities and providing resources so people can climb out of poverty. She said food is an important part of this. “It’s so personal. It’s your cultural identity. It’s what you know. It’s about how we act and react to each other.”
Jacob stopped using SNAP benefits after he picked up a second job as a server. He said although he was still probably eligible for SNAP, he was making enough to get by without relying on the program.
“It was easy to let it slip away, at that point,” he said.
However, Jacob said his views on using SNAP have changed in the years since he was receiving the benefits, and he encourages everyone eligible to sign up to receive them.
“I know a lot of people who are eligible as students to get SNAP benefits but they don’t want to do it because they feel like it’s not fair, or they feel like if you can tough it out or if you can budget well enough, don’t use it,” Jacob said. “If you’re making below the limit for SNAP benefits, why wouldn't you take the benefits? To me it’s asinine not to, it’s foolish not to because life is a struggle enough as it is, if you can have a little bit of assistance to eat better ... absolutely people should use it.”