A Thank You to the American Taxpayer

I want to offer my thanks to the readers of the Nouveau Poor and the American taxpayer. For the past several months you’ve been helping to buy my groceries. But I’m relieved to tell you that business has now recovered enough that we are back on our feet and ready to totter forward.

The past few years have been extremely difficult. Because of you, our family has had one bright spot in our daily life—the knowledge that we could afford food. When you can’t afford anything else, your next meal becomes incredibly important.

I’m happy to say the safety net worked like it should. Your help not only got us through some impossible months, it saved the jobs of our remaining employees, so their families could keep eating also. Still, when over 46 million Americans are on food stamps—one of every seven people in the U.S.—you know something is wrong. When the number of people receiving food assistance rises more than 70% in four years, and the cost of the program reaches $72 billion, you realize the system is broken.

But it’s fair to ask which system. While I’m very grateful for the assistance, I would have been even more grateful for a solution that made food stamps unnecessary. Since October, we’ve received nearly $5,000 in assistance or $687 per month for a family of four. Of this, we spent about $3,700. How much better would it have been to lower our taxes that amount so we didn’t need food stamps? Or how about removing the government’s foot from the neck of business so that buyers and sellers could make rational decisions? How about stripping out the endless regulations and requirements that make it almost impossible to make a profit if you’re a small business owner? How about not using businesses as the faceless cash cow for every harebrained scheme to come out of Washington? “Tax the rich” sounds great until you end up with no jobs.

I’ve tried to convey in these posts over the past months what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and buy food with an EBT card—all the while knowing that the cashier and the people in line behind you are eyeing your purchases and evaluating the worth of your clothes and your car. Those critics constantly whisper in my head. I can hear them now saying that if I didn’t like using food stamps we should have quit being leeches and gotten jobs—as if it’s that easy. Never mind that approximately 41% of the people on food stamps, including us, already live in working households.

Many people complain that the system is corrupt and riddled with fraud. And I’ve tried to be honest. Food stamps do warp buying decisions. The money comes at no cost except to dignity, and you don’t get to keep what you save—any money that isn’t spent rolls over, but at the end of the day the savings go back to the government. That makes it hard to be conscientious. Only the benefit amounts and a person’s own ethics act as a brake.

That said, many of the current proposals to “fix” the food stamp program are expensive and/or damaging. Some states have proposed limiting the types of food that can be purchased. But determining what to allow and policing such a system is costly. Others states, like Pennsylvania, have instituted asset testing, which makes sense as long as the asset limits are reasonable. If you force a family to sell a car they need to get to a job or look for work, how does that help taxpayers?

Other proposals include requiring photo identification on EBT cards, instituting a work or volunteer requirement (which would penalize job seekers and parents) and drug testing recipients, which besides being demeaning would be too expensive to be worthwhile. A more targeted approach might be to test only those who request replacement cards.

None of these solutions address the real problem: Taxpayers don’t want to see the person next to them getting for free what they have worked for. If you ask 10 people if they are willing to help the poor, nine of them will say yes. But if you take those same nine people to Wal-Mart and show them a woman (or man) using an EBT card, the majority will be outraged by something the person is buying, by her clothes or haircut or the number of children surrounding her or by her car. They will be sure the person is abusing the system.

Again, they’re focusing on the wrong issue. Food stamps are a blessing when you can’t afford food. Are they the right solution? I still don’t think so. Fix the country’s economic woes, and the majority of people receiving food stamps will be able to solve their own money problems. Lower taxes. Reduce regulation. Encourage education.

It’s hard to make the decision to go off food stamps. It’s hard to give up that safety in the face of uncertainty. The construction industry is showing faint signs of life, following the rest of the limping economy, but it’s far from certain that business will continue to move in the right direction. Much of Europe is back in recession, and the U.S. economy shows many troubling signs as well.

So we make this decision with trepidation. On the one hand, walking into a grocery store and paying for our own food will be a huge relief. On the other, the thought of going back to the days of walking out with as little as possible is daunting. But it’s the right thing to do.

I worry about the lessons my kids are learning. Will they decide there’s no point to saving money and working hard? Will they conclude that a college degree is a waste of time? I’ve wondered all those things the past few years. How has reading or overhearing the negative comments about welfare affected my children? What have they made of our choices with food stamps? For example, when they ask why we can’t buy ice cream or cookies, do they understand our decisions? How do they account for the fact that we’ve told only a handful of family and friends about being on food stamps?

I hope they take away some positive lessons: Help is available if you need it. People can be wonderfully kind and generous. You don’t need the latest gadgets and new clothes and entertainment to be happy. We have gotten good at re-creating foods we used to buy out and at baking our own treats. When you can’t afford any entertainment or extra expenses, being able to make a batch of cookies may be the bright spot of the week. And a packet of oatmeal eaten in a tent is more fun than any fancy breakfast at a restaurant.

This will be the final post for the Nouveau Poor as we re-join the self-sufficient. I want to thank my readers for your comments and encouragement and your own amazing stories. I’ve learned much and been given much to think about. I hope I’ve done the same for you, and I wish you all the greatest success.—The Nouveau Poor

Comments That Hurt: Welfare on the Web

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words about welfare hurt.

Once in a while, the topic of welfare breaks out somewhere on the Internet or at the corner market. A case in point is the recent post “My Time at Wal-Mart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform,” that recounts the usual horror stories about welfare abusers. Thousands of comments followed–everything from heart-wrenching stories of people who need help to vitriolic comments that welfare assistance should consist only of bread and water and “low-cost” meats. I’m grateful the authors added in that last, but what does it mean? Cat food perhaps?

These comments are discouraging. This morning, the headlines stated that 146.4 million Americans now fall into the low-income category, defined by the Census Bureau as earning $44,405 annually for a family of four. Another 49.1 million are below the poverty level of $22,314 annually. Are we to believe all these people are lazy and uneducated? The average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit (formerly known as Food Stamps) in 2011 is estimated to be $133.84 per month. In 2010, the amount was $133.79. I doubt most people are living large on that.

Here are some of the comments that irritate me the most:

I saw a women (or man) in line and she (or he) had a cart full of steak and lobster (or expensive cakes or shrimp or pick your favorite costly food.)

I get that we want people to wisely spend the money we provide. We don’t want them to receive luxuries we can’t afford ourselves. But you can’t know someone’s situation by looking at their cart. I’ve bought soda with my EBT card when my children were required to donate to a school party or the Boy Scout potluck. This situation comes up frequently, and I’m not willing to make my children explain to the organizers why they can’t participate. I’ve also bought steak with my card–our first beef in three years. And I bought not only one turkey; I bought two, because at Thanksgiving they are a cheap source of protein worth many meals. For that matter, steak can be cost-effective if stretched as an ingredient in a stir-fry or casserole.

I’d also like to point out the situation many poor people are in. Often those food benefits represent their only available luxury. If you can never go out or buy anything new, food takes on greater importance. That cake might be someone’s only birthday present. That coffee might be brewed for a gathering that is someone’s only social life. That candy bar might be a treat to look forward to after a long day of getting turned down for job after job. That steak might be a special dinner for a family that can no longer afford movies or cable or vacations.

Lastly, I’d like the commenters to consider the remedies for what they see as an abuse. We could allow only “nutritious” foods. But who gets to decide what qualifies? Who will police it? Some of the current guidelines are already arbitrary and ridiculous. For example, I could buy an uncooked pizza at Papa Murphy’s with my benefits, but not a cooked one from Pizza Hut. In reality, restricting the amount of the benefit curtails much of the junk food abuse. On $133 per month, if I’m buying steak and lobster and potato chips, I’m going to go hungry most days after one great meal.

I saw a lady pay with food stamps while talking on her iPhone.  She then went out to the parking lot and got into her new Cadillac (BMW, Prius, etc.)

Okay, again you don’t know the person’s situation. In my case, I drive a fairly new Prius. I paid for it when times were better with cash, like all the vehicles I’ve owned. I suppose I could sell the Prius and buy a used car, but then I’d pay twice as much for gas and up my repair bills. That cell phone might have come with a locked-in two-year plan that someone acquired before losing a job. Those new clothes could be a gift or a lucky find from Goodwill. The point is you can’t tell by looking.

I saw a guy who had thousands of dollars in EBT benefits on his grocery receipt.

Be grateful if a large EBT amount shows on the grocery receipt. (The balance in the account is printed on each receipt.) Unused benefits roll over from month-to-month. So if you see a large balance, that person is trying not to spend your money.

 ” . . . ask yourself if you’re a drain on the system. If you are, then shut up and go find a job. Any job. Get off your butt and actually do something.”

Many, many people who receive food assistance work, often long hours for low pay. Or they might be in our situation, with a struggling business in an industry that’s gone belly-up. We’ve spent our savings so that our employees (that’s you bragging about your iPad and phone and other luxuries) could get a paycheck. Other recipients are unemployed and seeking work. Jobs are difficult to find as evidenced by the national unemployment rate of 8.6%–a number that does not include the 8.5 million people working part-time because they couldn’t find anything better. Which leads to the next comment.

Why don’t you move to North Dakota and snag one of the plentiful jobs in the oil fields?

First, I know nothing about drilling. Second, I own a house that I would need to sell or rent in a dead real estate market. Third, we would have to abandon our remaining employees and business. Fourth, I guess I could take our tent and live in it, but otherwise moving would mean new costs for housing. Not a practical solution.

If you don’t work, don’t eat.

This suggestion has some obvious downsides. I’m assuming the gentleman who made the comment doesn’t want to pay added health costs or funeral expenses. Even if you are judgemental enough to want to punish people who aren’t making it, do you want to punish their children also? Oh wait, that leads to the last comment.

“’CAN’T FEED ‘EM, DON’T BREED ‘EM!’ Such a great motto! I just wish more Americans would adopt this same type of thinking.”

All I can say to this one is “ow.” Should you have children if you can’t provide for them? No. But should parents who need welfare feel guilty because they have children? Trust me, if your child is asking you why you can’t turn the heat up when they’re cold, you feel guilty enough.