Universal Food Stamps? If the Industrial Food System No Longer Provides Cheap Food, What Are We Keeping It For, Anyway?

Sharon January 3rd, 2009

I think the above is an important story, one that demonstrates an increasing shift in our society’s relationship to its food.  Vermont’s policy change on food stamps is likely to be mirrored by other states, and this represents both a fundamental shift in the reality of American need, and also, I think, the final stake in the heart of the industrial food system.

http://www.timesargus.com/article/20090103/NEWS02/901030330/0/SPORTS 
The well-known Food Stamp program got a new updated name Friday, and Vermont Gov. James Douglas was on hand for the launch, standing in front of three tables of food at Shaw’s Supermarket Friday afternoon. The state’s expanded nutrition program was symbolized by the display of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, underscoring the new name and “3Squares” focus on healthy eating.Enrollment in the program currently stands at 31,000, or more than 12 percent, of Vermont’s approximately 250,000 households. Those households represent more than 61,000 individuals in the state. The program has expanded by about 57 percent since 2001, when it served 39,000 individuals, said Steve Dale, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.Douglas said he anticipates that “tens of thousands of additional Vermont families will be eligible” for 3Squares VT. “What better time to make that important change than now, when so many Vermonters are struggling to pay their bills in these challenging economic times,” he said.

During the summer, anti-hunger advocates and members of the Vermont Food and Fuel Partnership looked for the most effective way to confront an expected winter crisis caused by spiking fuel bills that could force Vermonters to cut back on food. The consensus was to raise the eligibility ceiling for the supplemental nutrition assistance program and eliminate the asset test, which Douglas called “a burden to participation.” Those changes, agreed to last summer, went into effect Jan. 1.

Now people with gross incomes of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 130 percent, are eligible for the program. That’s $3,269 a month for a family of four. And people will no longer have to spend down their savings for their children’s college education or their retirement to qualify.

“That’s still lower income, but when you take away the onus of being the poorest of the poor, people realize, ‘This is for me!’” said Renée Richardson, the director of the program.”
 

I have to say, it was a bit of a shock to realize that if we lived in Vermont, my family would qualify for food stamps.  But, of course, that goes along with what has been a massive national shift – away from food stamps as a method of helping the most vulnerable and towards food stamps as a food subsidy that essentially makes food affordable for many people.  In the last few years we’ve seen food stamp enrollment (and let’s be honest, they’ve changed the name before, they will still be calling it food stamps, no matter what marketing VT does) move up to 1 in 9 Americans, and 1 in 6 people in Michigan and Washington DC.  That is, they effectively now operate as a subsidy for a substantial, and rapidly increasing portion of the US.  Given the scale of the expected economic crisis in 2009 and 2010, it would not be surprising to see those numbers hit 1 in 5 Americans.

Now I want to be clear – I am in favor of food stamps and any strategy that helps keep people from going hungry, and that ensures adequate nutrition.   I’m also strongly in favor of any new program that reduces or even attempts to reduce the stigma of accepting aid when it is needed.  That said, however, the question needs to be asked – are food stamps the best possible way to address the issues of food security and access that we’ve created in our society? 

First of all, let’s talk about what’s driving the vast increase in food stamp enrollment in the US.  The first factor is state enthusiasm – that is, there has been a laudable push to bring more hungry people into the food stamp program.  There has also been a push by the states to expand their food stamp enrollment because food stamps are federally funded, and effectively transfer federal dollars into the state – that is, the food that food stamp recipients purchase in Vermont gets spent in Vermont. 

 Food stamps are an extremely effective way of subsidizing state economies, because virtually every dollar gets spent directly – that is, unlike, say, tax returns that often get saved or put into markets that benefit others, low income families don’t have a lot of reserve, so the money they get circulates around – it gets spent and used in the economy, upping the velocity of money.  In this sense, food stamps are a much better investment than, say, bank bailouts – money given to Citibank, for example, goes into the bank’s coffers to offset its existing debts, and is mostly never seen again.  Food stamps given to low income families get spent at the supermarket or the farmer’s market and get money circulating in the community.  In a comparatively poor state like Vermont, this is absolutely urgent.

But, of course, there’s another, not so helpful reason why food stamp enrollments are rising – people are struggling. 2007 saw vast rises in the price of basic foods, and while some foods have declined in cost somewhat – milk for example – agricultural prices are always based in large part on the last season’s production, and so consumers can expect to pay high prices for a long time. 

Moreover, as more and more industrial food producers are forced to stop absorbing higher commodity prices, and make up for shifts in their bottom lines that occurred last year, prices are likely to remain high while companies attempt to remain in business.  With one major industrial producer, Pilgrim Foods, already in bankruptcy, we can expect to see some measure of consolidation in the system – leading, probably to higher prices overall.  Combine that with dramatic month over month job losses and pay cuts, and the prospects are overwhelmingly for more and more people to struggle to put food on the table. Indeed, food pantries and food stamp application handlers are all reporting more and more people who never thought they would be in there present situation needing help.

I think it is important that those of us who think about food begin thinking about food stamps not as an emergency support program, but as a normative food subsidy for Americans – the move to include middle class citizens in food stamp programs is likely to grow, and the fact that the middle class now needs food stamps to get by is not just a bad sign for the temporary economy, but a serious structural shift in our food system.  The exapansion of food stamps is already having a substantial impact on the food system as a whole – remember, states are being flooded with dollars that can *only* be spent on food – this means that the food marketplace is being shifted as a whole, for as spending drops, we are shifting dollars in a particular direction.  Again, I have no difficulty with this to the extent it mitigates hunger – but we do need ask who these subsidies are actually supporting.  If we are going to make a massive federal investment in the food system, we should be subsidizing investments that improve local food security, support goals of cutting global warming gasses and reduce the externalization of a range of problems from health costs to ecological damage onto the shoulders of already burdened taxpayers.

In this sense food stamps are not an unmitigated good.  At this point, food stamps disproportionally benefit the industrial food economy -  many farmer’s markets and CSA programs cannot or are not set up to accept food stamps, and low income families often struggle to get transport to farmer’s markets and farmstands that do accept them. CSAs usually require upfront payments that food stamp recipients cannot make – and while many CSA owners attempt to accomodate low income shares, their personal profit margins are sufficiently low that this doesn’t always work. 

Not only does this prioritization of the industrial do considerable ecological harm, and also reduce the access of lower income families to healthy foods,  but it works against the interests of the states, which lose most of the dollars spent their as they go back to industrial producers. A rational system would be something like Michael Pollan’s proposition that food stamp values are doubled when spent directly at farmer’s markets or through CSA payment programs.  So to would using some federal subsidy and education money to teach people – children and adults – how to cook and eat seasonally, so that they could get the most from their food stamp dollars, buying high quality, whole foods.

But more importantly, the rise in food stamp use should make us look seriously at our industrial food system, and our food system in relationship to the world at large.  For a long time, the one thing that you could say about American industrial food was that it was cheap.  But if food is no longer inexpensive, not just for the poor, but for the American middle class, then the single virtue of the industrial food system begins to collapse.  That is, even with a system of externalized costs, one that defers paying the full price of pollution, industrial food is no longer affordable.  So why were we keeping the industrial food system around again?  Certainly not because there are no better choices – if we are going to subsidize expensive food, why not good, nutritious food that will lower national health costs, enrich small farmers and improve overall food security? 

If we are to accept that something as basic as food has now moved out of the realm of ordinary affordability, this should make clear to us precisely how vulnerable we are to hunger even in the US.  The fact that we have acknowledged a need for a subsidy that extends well into the middle class (and it actually extends further than implied, because food stamps automatically make you eligible for things like subsidized school lunches) means that the industrial food system no longer is managing to do the one thing that you could say in its defense – provide affordable food.  And if this is no longer the case, there really is no defense left for industrial agriculture.

Sharon 

138 Responses to “Universal Food Stamps? If the Industrial Food System No Longer Provides Cheap Food, What Are We Keeping It For, Anyway?”

  1. MEA says:

    I can understand your worried, Joanna, but please remember — it this will be any help — there are also people who don’t care about any of the above, and are just glad you have a way to feed help feed your family — lots of them post here. Some of them are getting FS and other help, too, formal or in formal.

    Good luck.

  2. Sharon says:

    I read this letter, written by a poor Southern Housewife to President Roosevelt in _Down and Out in the Great Depression_ which is a collection of letters written about conditions during the period. I think it shows that the discussion here has a long, long history:

    “There is plenty of people on relief who have plenty, just want to idle about and not work and think its fine for some poor working man to keep them, there are hundreds and hundreds of folks who should bee making there own living and could get work if they wanted it. It is coming to the point where no one wants to work everyone is just fighting to get on relief.

    An Mr. Roosevelt, I do believe if you could really see the ruin it is doing you would I know stop it, the idleness it is causing, the sin in is causing and all sorts of mean things….I am sick most all the time, can’t afford a doctor or help and just have to strugglile along. Those on relief both black and white dont’t even raise a garden or a thng to help themselves,gjust getting more an dmore each day. The taxes are getting os heavy on us few who are trying to get along it takes all we make to pay our tax. Please make folks go back to work.”

    The division of people who ought to be natural allies -those who are struggling and don’t get help, those who are struggling more and need it – this is a tough thing to navigate. As long as we buy the narrative that this is an either/or discussion, we don’t get too far.

    Sharon

  3. MEA says:

    Sharon,

    The letter you quoted reminded me of a story from one of Turkel’s books — about the man who took his team of mules to plough for some sort of public work where he’d get some food. Since he hadn’t been able to feed the mules, they collapsed. The work wasn’t done, and he didn’t get the food.

    But, hey, those who don’t work, don’t eat. Paul was an iron wasn’t he.

    MEA

  4. I think the gov’t likes it when some people judge those who use food stamps. It keeps the “what is she wearing” crowd’s attention diverted from fighting the real problem: the greed of corporations and gov’t.

  5. MEA says:

    Wanna — just wanted to thank you for kind thoughts and kind words.

    MEA

  6. margaret says:

    I’ve been over the stigma of the stamps. Of course, I live in Saginaw, MI. And more people get them here than don’t. So rare is the food seller who can afford not to accept EBT. Here’s how I rock out my food stamps each month. Our farmer’s market takes EBT, and that’s where 1/4 to 1/3 of my budget goes in season. I pay cash to purchase produce items in bulk that I like to can or store, and that helps me through the sparse winter. My income fluctuates seasonally. I spend anther 1/3 to 1/2 of my food budget with our local co-op which also takes EBT, and which offers local and organic bulk items. And the rest, plus some cash out of pocket goes toward grocery store items (canned goods, treats, and things like pasta that I can get much cheaper there than through the co-op). I also budget in a trip to our ethnic markets for bulk rice and spices from time to time. And I keep a garden which keeps us happily eating home grown collards almost year round and a variety of other things through the growing season. I’m not proud to be poor, but I’m not ashamed. I use my time and money well. I have my health. I have amazing friends and family. I have a warm comfortable home and a car that runs. And I am looking for a job in my field of study, but in the meantime, I’ll live as well as I can and enjoy where I’m at and what I have to the maximum. And maybe next time I go to Kroger, I’ll put on that pretty little suit I save for the occasional job interview, do my hair and my nails, and strut around like I own the place. Just for the fun of it.

  7. grace says:

    margaret,
    thanks. I always feel better when I know I am
    reading about a home girl….having lived most of my life in Michigan. And still having many
    friends since childhood there who even given the dire straights “don’t want to hear it”.
    thank you,
    grace N Mex

  8. Isis says:

    I just wanted to comment on the fact that many people felt shame about having to apply for and pay with food stamps. I have to say this sounds a little bit strange to me. Now, granted, I never did receive public assistance, but I grew up in a crisis ridden region, where e.g. rationing and blackouts were part of every day life. Basically, what I got out of the experience is that there is no shame to being poor; to have a lot of money amidst so many struggling people, and to put that on display, is what’s shameful. So… Give me the choice between going grocery shopping with food stamps, and going shopping in Prada, I’ll take the food stamps any day. Wearing Prada would make me feel like a freak, I don’t think I could lift my head looking like that. Food stamps… While I do hope that I never struggle badly enough to need welfare, I don’t think I’d be ashamed to use it if I did; though I’m sure I’d be scared to be so financially vulnerable.

  9. Fern says:

    What I can’t figure out is how folks can tell so easily if someone making an electronic payment is using an electronic ‘food stamps’ card or a credit or debit card. I think they’d all look the same to me.

    I’m trying to figure out how some sort of food stamps/rationing minimums system might work that addresses the junk food concerns. The food desert concerns I haven’t contemplated yet!

    What if …
    it WAS more like rationing from WWII?

    Break down the usage for ‘fresh/canned/frozen’ produce, ‘proteins’ (meats, nuts, fish, cheese, milk, tofu, tempeh, beans), grains (open for debate on if they should be at least 50% whole grain products, eliminating white bread/rice/flour), fats, and ‘condiments’. Condiments would have to include everything from salt and yeast to sugar and chips.

    Fern

  10. Wanna says:

    This discussion on fairness reminds me of something Gloria Steinem wrote in her book on Revolution From Within. To paraphrase her, the easiest way for those in power to control others, is through education. If they can get people to buy into the way things should be, then we will follow along willingly, self police ourselves and police others too via (dis)approval. Then the law enforcers only need to deal with the law breakers (minus politicians and CEOs of course becos the rules don’t apply to them).

    This programming comes through formal education, tv, magazines, etc. The gov is subsidizing DTV converter boxes for folks who are still using antennas. Seems odd, tv doesn’t seem essential enough to subsidize but if you see tv as a way of quickly reaching the masses to set public opinion via the media monopoly, then its understandable. Just imagine if everyone turned off their tvs, radios and internets and had to form their own opinions.

    The more rules we have: be successful, look successful, and the more energy we put into these external goals, the less time we have to think for ourselves and question whats really going on, and how we support the madness with our choices, and how much freedom we actually have to drop out of the rat race.

    And the more energy we spend competing against one another (because of scarcity mentality), the more divided we become, unable to unite to fight a common cause. They’re counting on us to care about ourselves, getting our fair share. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to manipulate us. Maybe we shouldn’t be so reasonable. Maybe instead of playing by the rules they have established for us, we should be playing by their rules, there aren’t any! :)

  11. vera says:

    All this agonizing over being on foodstamps! Must be part of the brainwashing we get. The rich certainly aren’t bashful to spend their bailouts on expensive junkets, corporate jets, and million dollar bonuses. You figure that’s what preppy academies & parents teach them? Must be… They don’t waste their energy on judging whether their people are “deserving”. What a quaint concept, they would say.

  12. curiousalexa says:

    Why she wears fancy clothes:

    a) Until she lost her job, it was the lifestyle she had been taught she deserved/earned.

    b) She works for someone who decided to downsize her life, getting rid of the extra designer duds in her closet. (true story on flylady – the housekeepers inherited a large amount of Prada and similar. And that’s what they wore, even to come clean, because that’s what they had.)

    c) It’s the only thing in her closet that currently fits.

    d) (as previously mentioned) the items were gifts, or great finds at second-hand stores.

    e) she was shopping on her way home from a job interview.

    f) she finally wore out her last pair of jeans (something I’m dangerously close to!), and had to resort to her office wardrobe (something I’ve been avoiding!)

    Most of the time, I’d guess a) to be the likeliest answer. If you’ve recently lost your job, and were never the weekend-wear type, you’re not likely to go clothes shopping while job-hunting. But you may choose to use food stamps in order to keep your car payments to find a new job. Trading for an older clunker risks unknown repair problems.

  13. curiousalexa says:

    I need an econ lesson.

    If most people can’t afford to buy food without subsidizing, where do the subsidies come from?
    (Which is where the expansion seems to be headed.)

  14. Fern wrote: “Break down the usage for ‘fresh/canned/frozen’ produce, ‘proteins’ (meats, nuts, fish, cheese, milk, tofu, tempeh, beans), grains (open for debate on if they should be at least 50% whole grain products, eliminating white bread/rice/flour), fats, and ‘condiments’. Condiments would have to include everything from salt and yeast to sugar and chips.”

    I wish they would do something like this for food stamps. I’d think it’d be very easy to do. Many stores have those internal programs where if you buy, for example, 6 gallons of milk, you get a coupon for the 7th gallon free. Since that kind of technology is in place, it should be utilized for food stamps.

    It might also be a good idea that if a person purchased more healthful food, that they’d get a little bonus of an extra $5 or $10 a month in their food stamp account. That would reward those who make more healthful choices which, in the long run, would help with healthcare costs.

  15. Isis says:

    curiousalexa,

    You said:

    “Why she wears fancy clothes:
    a) Until she lost her job, it was the lifestyle she had been taught she deserved/earned.
    [...]
    Most of the time, I’d guess a) to be the likeliest answer.”

    See, this is what really ticks me off. Yeah, there’s the (important) issue of fairness, but the thing that really, really gets to me is when people flaunt wealth (whether real or not). This idea that ‘I’m hard working/smart/middle class/what have you, and therefore I DESERVE luxury items’ – I can’t stand it. Especially because it usually goes along with the attitude of ‘I’m better than those who can’t afford these items’. I find the attitude physically nauseating. (Not least because it drives consumption, which in turn drives the rat race and the ecological disaster that we’re currently in the middle of.) It’s nauseating to see it in anyone. The fact that some people with this attitude happen to be on welfare is simply the icing on the cake.

  16. Jen says:

    Ugh. I’m still surprised at how my comment(s) were COMPLETELY misconstrued and the discussion became a runaway nightmare about fairness. Which was not what I talked about. I completely support food stamps. I, like Isis have a problem with conspicuous comsumption. How ANYONE here thinks that one should look the part of a homeless person, dirty, etc, is beyond me. I can only guess it’s a self imposed stigma. I dont use food stamps, but I also don’t look like I have any money. We have 2 paid for vehicles that are hardly driven since my dh works from home. It’s shocking how everyone assumed that mean old Jen was falsely accusing the poor woman in the store for being too materialistic while she buy HIGH-priced food with food stamps. There should be restrictions on how much “unhealthly” food one can buy with assitance. My question for you all is why am I the wrong one is this scenario? Does noone here not know ANYONE who has abused the system? Or who spends their cash on stuff for them? The point about creature comforts is guess what, when you are poor…you dont get to have creature comforts. When you are poor you get a stick of candy in your stocking one a year. I mean really people we are so spoiled.
    I havent always had enough money. I’ve worked 60-80 and 3 jobs at once. Ive eaten one FREE meal a day at the restaurant I served at while trying to go to school and am in the student loan debt to prove it. I waited until 30 to have a child and even then my dh only made 25k a year and I took no maternity leave, not even 6 weeks so that I could work from home and not have to leave my daughter. Blessed we were that he found a new job just in time making JUST enough more to squeak buy. I worked at a grocery store to get a discount on food to help out.
    Now was all that fair? Yes, no, who cares? Could I have received FS? Yes, but I didn’t. Does that make me special? no. I actually never thought about even getting them. The thing is, if I had no other choice I would. Would I show up looking like I stepped off a magazine cover? No. But that’s likely because I would be tryingt o pull together food resources NOT matching shoe/purse hair cut ones.
    Sharon this is not about fairness. Because it’s not fair that our food system is the way it is. It actually about people doing the right thing and not worrying about “what they look like?” anymore.

    I’m mostly just ranting now because I was tired of the sense of entitlement I kept seeing spread over this discussion. Entitlement is killing this country. Entitlement is our NATIONAL disease.

  17. A says:

    While I’m all for Food Security at every income level the idea of gov’t help via food stamps makes me raise an eyebrow.

    My brother works in marketing. Part of his job is monthy visits to contract vendors, many of which are convenience stores. His territory includes a large swath of the lowest income area in the state.

    He has personally witnessed some of the vendors in these lower income areas participating in illegal sale of food stamps. Qualified recipients are selling this assistance for tobacco and alcohol and everyone turns a blind eye. He’s even mentioned this to mutual friends in law enforcement and they said it’s so widespread it’s pointless to waste their time on it. This fraud might be responsible for “well to do” looking people using assistance and why I do not support this program. Not saying everyone participates in this, but am willing to bet a substantial percentage does.

    My spouse and I give generously to food shelves and we feel that private charity is much better at distribution to the truly needy. *IF* the gov’t found a way to distribute food in lieu of money/vouchers I could get behind their program. Until that change happens I’m 100% against a program so rife with fraud.

  18. Liz says:

    To avoid a bunch of posts, I’m going to reply to several people.

    Sharon, it really is quite easy for a merchant to start taking food stamps. The application is online, and the requirements are simple. The applicant must have at least a green card (citizenship isn’t required, but permanent residency is). They must have some kind of government-issued photo identification (driver’s license, etc.). If their business is located where business licenses are required, they have to provide a copy of that (believe it or not, there are still some places in the US where you don’t have to have a business license–my county is one of them). They have to answer some questions about what kind of groceries they sell. Once all that stuff is turned in, someone like me comes to visit the place of business and verify that they actually are selling groceries. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

    Specialty retailers who sell a limited variety of food are welcome. I inspect bakeries, produce stands, seafood places, frozen food route sales, farmers markets, food buying clubs, even one lady whose produce came from her back yard and who sold it by pulling a big child’s wagon around her neighborhood. You aren’t required to have a special EBT terminal. If you already take debit and credit cards, you can use the same terminal for them, but it’s also possible to call a phone number to verify that the EBT card you’re being given is valid and has a sufficient dollar amount on it to cover the purchase. All that’s needed in that case is a telephone. Many of the frozen food route sales companies do it that way.

    So there’s really no reason for a food merchant not to accept food stamps if they want to. In the past, many of them didn’t want to deal with the paper coupons, but now the funds are deposited directly into the store’s bank account, so there’s no hassle at all.

    Fern, the EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card is different in each state, but they’re all fairly distinctive. In Virginia, it’s called the Cardinal card (solid blue background, big red cardinal, our state bird). Anyone who’s paying attention would be able to tell whether the person in front of them was paying with a VISA/MC or a Cardinal card.

    Screaming Sardine, while I personally agree with you about rewarding healthful shopping, the unfortunate fact is that many food stamp recipients are elderly, poorly educated, don’t have a good grasp of English, etc., etc. Making their use any more complicated than having to remember their PIN (which many elderly clients have a real problem with) is probably not feasible. But food stamp users are able to participate in any kind of promotion that a grocery store is offering, so if the store is having a buy 6, get one free, it doesn’t matter whether the customer is using cash or food stamps.

  19. Jen wrote: “The point about creature comforts is guess what, when you are poor…you dont get to have creature comforts. When you are poor you get a stick of candy in your stocking one a year. I mean really people we are so spoiled.”

    So again, I ask, if someone has to go on foodstamps, are they required to give up all the “creature comforts” they already paid for when they were gainfully employed? Should they go live in a tent, even though they have a house already paid for? And who gets these “creature comforts” they must give up? What happens if they become gainfully employed again? Can they get their “creature comforts” back?

  20. Liz says:

    A, if your brother will report the abuse he sees to the Food and Nutrition section of the USDA (phone numbers online and in the phone book), you can bet they will do something about it. The police don’t have jurisdiction–it isn’t a criminal offense. I have no connection with fraud investigation and enforcement–that’s done by USDA employees, not contractors. But I hear enough to know that it isn’t tolerated when it’s discovered.

  21. Isis says:

    “Should they go live in a tent, even though they have a house already paid for?”

    You’re again dishonestly trying to turn this into a designer clothes vs. rags debate.

  22. Sharon says:

    Jen, since you are talking to me directly (I wasn’t picking on you, really, I can see your point and I quoted that letter not because I thought one “side” of this was bad or wrong, but because I genuinely see both sides of it – the frustration of those who feel they have less because they are supporting people who could do better, and those who don’t want to be judged unfairly), I will say that I don’t think I do agree with you.

    Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not someone with a lot of interest in appearances, and I agree with you that conspicous consumption is pretty tacky. On the other hand, I have a farm and 27 acres of land – compared to someone like Isis, who lives in a house with two roommates, I’m a pretty big conspicuous consumer. Now there’s a story behind that land – we shared with family, we lived dead cheap to afford it, we are trying to grow food for our community – but it is also a big whompin asset, and to someone who dreams of getting land and can’t get there despite working their asses off, I probably look like a pig sometimes. It would be easy for me to say that land is a “good” kind of conspicuous consumption, and designer clothes are a bad kind, but then again, that’d be awfully easy for someone like me, who adheres to Molly Ivins’ philosophy of clothing “Woman who wears clothes so she won’t be nekkid.”

    And yet I know people whose crappy paying jobs depend on their physical appearances – waitresses and hostesses at that kind of restaurant, people who work at high end retail stores (my sister did this for a while, and it is very hard to keep up the needed appearances with what they pay you), a number of other jobs that treat women as ornaments. Would it be better if our society didn’t – sure, and I’ll put that on my “battles to fight” right after “get everyone growing food” is all done ;-) . In the meantime, the people who have those jobs, have those jobs and I’d rather they keep them than be totally dependent.

    That said, I think you’ve got a real point – people do take advantage of the system, and while I don’t want anyone going hungry, I think that we do have an entitlement problem. In fact, I’ve been working a post about the ways our sense of entitlement keeps us from responding appropriately to the current economic system. I feel very strongly that staying out of the safety nets is the honorable thing to do when you can – they are going to be very much stretched in the coming years at some point many of them will probably give way, and it will happen sooner if people who don’t need food stamps or whatever take advantage of them. It is a complex balancing issue.

    But tilting at conspicuous consumption brings us back to the question of what is conspicuous consumption – it is a good subject. Is my farm and my stores of beans and rice conspicuous consumption in a world where some people are hungry? Are we going to call it conspicuous consumption when women are reduced to prostitution to keep their kids fed, and thus need to spend money on aesthetics (and yes, that happens)? Do we have to go instantly to the one piece of candy in the stocking – is there a more moderate position. The problem is one of definitions, and I don’t think it is easy to answer.

    Sharon

  23. MEA says:

    Could we define a few terms here:

    I though designer clothing was stuff that had a label in — you know, someone other than the home dresser maker had designed it. That the sort of stuff most people wouldn’t put on to go food shopping was haute coulture — mostly one of a kind stuff, or for a limited pret-au-porte market.

    I’d laugh at one any who turned up grocery shopping in a Dior evening gown, but for a number of years I wore a wool coat made by a Hungarian designer for a lady in Prague. It was given to a friends mil as she fled on 6 hours notice in 1956 — a neighbor came to a class she was teaching and didn’t thing the mil should wait to go back to her office for her coat and gave her the one off her back.l

    Coat turned up in the US sometime later with mil, who gave it her to dil when she died (or just before, I guess), who never wore it becuase it didn’t fit, but was too nice to throw out, and eventually traded it to me for a leather coat I trash picked in NY. (She knew it was trash picked — and wore in skate boarding in Soho.) I wore it to work for several years — I was freelancing, and yes, bought into the must look sucessful to be sucessful. Then the lining shattered, and I wasn’t looking forward to relining it, esp. as all I had was pink rayon from a dress up a sil had passed to us, and I hate lining, esp. when you have to make a pattern.

    At that point (I was ill — chronic condition had flared up, my mother was ill — and she said that if either of use went down the childcare arrangments for 3 children and the care my father’s needs would go down the drain and said that I had to give up something) I bought a coat 2nd hand.

    I kept the old one, becuase something always turns up. In this case, it was a London Fog rain coat liner that I’d bought from the clothing closit at church for 50 cents thinking one day I’d made a Harry Potter costume. When I remember it, and tried it, it turned out it that only two evenings work and the coat was usable again. It’s keeping a soup kitchen patron warm now.

    But if go we by the designer rule, either the mil should have ditched it (I mean, do refugees deserve to look that good?) or I should never has passed it one the soup kitchen. Maybe I should have never worn it in the first place since it gave the impression that I cared about how I looked.

    I also took full advantage of the government entitlements that help out people who buy houses by letting them deduct the interest. I made so little when I adopted I didn’t get any money back to offset expenses, so I guess I go down with the cheats.

    BTY, I know a fair number of women who abused food stamps. They were all turning tricks on the side and a $20 a time and 4 or 5 men a night (generally after a day of house cleaning) they were making, even after they paid their pimps it tipped most of the over the amount they could make — it’s not that all FS users turn tricks, but one of the populations I was working with was women who were sex workers. Given the misery of their lives and of their childrten, I don’t give a damn about they few extra dollars they were getting.

    For heaven’s sake, our lives are going to miserable enough: do we have to go around making judgements about people looking too good for their station. I’d rather smile at someone who is wearing a bright colored sweater or nicely patched jeans and wonder if the patches were put on as a fashion statement by someone who should no long be induling or if the sweater is lambswool when it should be Red Lion. Perhaps we need to re-introducing forlock tugging.

    MEA

  24. Jen says:

    Sharon,
    “Conspicuous consumption” was coined by an economist named Thornstein Veblen in 1902: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1902veblen00.html
    By his defintion, any kind of consumption which is concerned only with status is “conspicuous.” This completely excludes stashes of beans and rice and land to house/support your family. It may hold status for some people, but is still utilitarian. Your land serves more purposes than to make you look good. Take the case of thrift store jeans vs. NEW $200 jeans molded for your specific ass in mind, then yes that’s conspicious.

    I’m not frustrated at supporting those who have less. I remind my daugther more frequently than I should how lucky she is to eat vegetables. She goes with me to shop for teh pantry and REALLY understands that there are people who are hungry.

    I’m frustrated that FS recipient or not, our idea of what is a luxury is desperately wrong. I loved your post about showers btw, it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Simple pleasures have become cliche, a code word for champagne and cavier on a plain white imported linen tablecloth.

  25. vera says:

    Well, it looks like the “never say quits” arguers about appearances have successfully blocked any discussion of the initial issues raised by Sharon’s post. I give up.

  26. Sharon says:

    Jen, I’m familiar with Veblen – but that assumes that you can identify something in a food stamp recipient in particular as “only concerned with status.” My point was that her clothing may not be just about status – it may be about keeping her job, which requires a certain kind of appearance (working in many status-oriented jobs even as peon requires that you have the look, the manners, etc… that someone who has money has). And Veblen’s category requires us to imagine that status is unconnected to other issues like economic viability, finding a partner, trying to transcend class lines (it is easy, for example, for well educated people to express their “suitedness” for particular kinds of jobs based on certain kinds of physical assurance and their language – someone who doesn’t have those things may need to rely more heavily on the visible signs of class status simply to get a job).

    I don’t think that’s a reality for many people – class is more complex than that. We don’t like to admit, for example, how much women keeping out of poverty, particularly when they have children, depends on their attracting and keeping a mate. Our society emphasizes a particular standard of beauty – highly energy intensive and highly processed. Personally, I don’t find it very attractive, and I’m fortunate enough to have a husband who shares my tastes. But the whole society establishes that to a large degree women’s status has to do with their attractiveness – and a woman who invests herself in that as a way of dealing with the real problem of female poverty isn’t evil – and her consumption isn’t just conspicuous – her status isn’t just arbitrary, it enables her to function in the society as a whole.

    I agree we value the wrong things as a society. But asking the poorest people to simply stop valuing them right now because they are poor puts the onus in many cases on the people who have the least power to buck societal assumptions.

    Moreover, I think the careful watching of anyone who receives certain kinds of subsidies creates what I think would be a violation of our moral obligation to judge one another fairly – I don’t blame you for getting angry and frustrated, but I do think that holding the poor to a higher moral standard than the rest of us, understandable as it may be, is probably the wrong approach, in part because it is doomed to failure.

    Sharon

  27. Fern says:

    I also think that there are western societal archtypes that the ‘well dressed people using food stamps’ concept violates. It blows the Romanic concept of “The Noble Savage” away, and does damage to the concept that poverty is supposed to be somehow ‘purifying’ … at least in others.

    Fern

  28. Rebecca says:

    I am on food stamps right now, and because I have time to cook from scratch and such (I am mostly unemployed) I’ve been able to eat very well and even save some food for my food storage. My state’s food stamp card is very conspicuous: it is bright blue and has “Alabama EBT” written all over it.

    To whomever said it was easy for a vendor to take food stamps, first they have to take credit cards, and that’s not easy to do. The machines are expensive, the subscriptions are expensive, and then you have to pay so much of each transaction to the card company. Which is why so many merchants don’t take cards.

  29. MEA says:

    I’ve often joked (with irony) that I live a 2nd hand life. If someone else didn’t buy the jeans 1st they’d never end up in the thirft shop, and once people can longer afford to buy them in the first place, I’ve lost my 2nd hand life.

    I’ve had a lot of problem with the “you deserve it” advertising, becuase it suggests that if you can afford it you deserve it, such as a weekend at a spa, but if you can’t afford it, you don’t deserve it, such as basic dental care. And I think that is in part what’s getting up Jen’s nose. Am I right?

    Looking in terms of a solution that doesn’t involve food stamps…

    For ages I’ve been trying to get local chuches to consider offinging a “friendship dinner” or some such other name (nothing that would involve getting a liscence) on the last Friday or Sat of the month, where anyone who wants can get a cheap (sorry, it has to be cheap because it’s coming of my pocket — actually, it would come out ofthe money I give monthy to the soup kitchen and it has to be Fri or Sat becuase those are the only nights I could get there, cook it and serve it) meal. There are several pockets of poverity that I know about in local towns, where there is no easy access to soup kitchens and food pantries are very limited and strained. And again and again I get, no, there isn’t any need. I realize it’s time to start again. (I also realize that if I were any sort of person I’d whip together some sort of grand application and end up with a kitchen on wheels, tons of money for food, and a devoted staff serving several locations.)

  30. Sololeum says:

    Folks I truly apologize for sounding a bit snooty about the poor and having free time – I just didn’t realize how horrible your country is compared to Australia. Our minimum wage is probably twice to three times yours in real terms as low income earners get subsidized pharmaceuticals, the whole population gets Medicare vide a Health Care Card that everyone has, and even in our cities most people still live in detached housing – the further out they get smaller now with the McMansions, but still enough land to grow some food.

    I urge you with the comming Obama years to aim for a truly national approach to welfare – here there are no food stamps, just a welfare payment people can live within and rent assistance is provided on top, a Medicare system is so good you need not have private insurance (we are in our mid 50′s and still don’t) and cheap pharmaceuticals paying only $5.30 if on a low income conscession card. Some dental assistance is also available but strongly used and so queues are long!

    Like others on this blog I beleive we should put out from supporting the current consumer society and become much more productive ourselves – this means we will be materially poorer – but also we will be healthier and if enough of us do it the earth itself will be able to breath a sigh of relief.

  31. curiousalexa says:

    Jen – my comment wasn’t actually directed at you, it was towards the tangent I saw the thread taking. I apologize for not making that clear.

    Isis – I agree that entitlement is an ugly thing. There was a certain amount of sarcasm in my comment (which text doesn’t show, sorry!)

    Part of my point (in option a) was that the hypothetical person was living according to the rules she was taught, and very possibly does not know/realize there are other rule options.

    I think we need to be careful about judging other people by our own rulers. I sure hate it when others judge me by *their* rulers! My life doesn’t measure up to most – I have yet to finish college (I’m in my late 30s). I don’t have consistent paid employment. I have deliberately chosen time over money throughout my life. By most people’s measure, I am a flake and a failure. And yet I’ve also been told that I know the most interesting things, people come to me for advice on sustainability, and years ago someone commented to my then partner that I was the person they wanted to know if society crashed because of my interest in pre-industrial revolution skills.

    My “job” is to explore, learn, and share. I get paid in respect and appreciation, rather than cash.

    My choice of time over money has allowed me to accept an offer to visit a friend in Maine this spring to learn firsthand about backyard livestock – raising and butchering rabbits and chickens. This is knowledge I will bring back to my communities in Illinois, where friends have expressed interest, but due to work commitments have no access to learning. And certainly not the in-depth several weeks immersion I will be able to experience. (we plan to explore tanning as well!)

    And now I’ve gone off on a *totally* different tangent! I felt a need to insert some different perspectives – thank you TheNormalMiddle, among others, for sharing yours!

  32. curiousalexa says:

    MEA – I have often joked with my friends to please do NOT live the way I do, or I couldn’t live this way! I am fortunate to have friends more than happy to let me take care of household chores they detest in trade for room and board. If they didn’t have traditional cash-paying jobs, none of us would live in this nice brick bungalow in a walkable neighborhood with an amazingly wonderful library! (Granted, I also wouldn’t be in a huge sprawling metropolitan area, either.)

    Diversity is the key to life, in so many more ways than we can imagine!

  33. Liz says:

    “To whomever said it was easy for a vendor to take food stamps, first they have to take credit cards, and that’s not easy to do. The machines are expensive, the subscriptions are expensive, and then you have to pay so much of each transaction to the card company. Which is why so many merchants don’t take cards.”

    That was me, and vendors are NOT required to take credit cards first. The people who deliver frozen foods don’t have a credit card terminal on each truck, believe me. The driver calls the office with the person’s EBT card number, and gets verification that there is sufficient balance on the card. Same goes for many small farmer’s market and produce stand vendors. I can’t stress this enough–it is not necessary for a food retailer to take credit cards in order for them to accept payment by EBT.

    Unfortunately, for those who have credit card terminals, the credit card processors don’t distinguish between EBT and other debit cards. I think they should be required to, but that’s only my opinion.

    I don’t know about other states, but Virginia has what is often called the “Cardinal machine.” Vendor who use those do not have to pay a transaction fee for EBT sales. It was originally a way to make it easier to accept the EBT card if you didn’t already take credit cards. But I think fewer merchants are using them now that so many stores take credit cards.

  34. Rosa says:

    Someone above (I’m sorry, I scrolled through and can’t find it again) mentioned a neighborhood in Minneapolis where the farmer’s market takes EBT cards. That’ s my neighborhood!

    This is how it works; you can use any credit card to buy farmer’s market tokens. It costs fifty cents per $20 in tokens (I don’t know if there is a charge for the EBT/WIC/food stamps users). The cost pays for the credit card conversion machine/service. The labor is done by volunteers, screened by the market board, who are also doing things like selling tote bags and handing out market maps.

    Part of the reason this is possible is because the market really wanted it to be; part of it is because of long term activism by local food/small farm people, like our fabulous Land Stewardship Project. But the biggest part of it is that the local Hmong community spent years fighting for reform of the food support programs, which back in the ’70s didn’t consider rice or asian greens suitable for WIC, or certify ethnic grocery stores for food stamps. It was organizing by recipients, and coalitions of groups with similar goals, that made the change.

    Where food stamps go is a big, real political issue. Instead of worrying about what food stamps should be restricted to, or that people are buying the wrong food, we should be worrying about expanding how they can be used and then making good choices available to everyone. Organics & locally produced foods get criticized as being elitist, and then programs get cut when budgets get tight – one way to change that is by finding the non-yuppie consumers, and making that connection.

  35. dewey says:

    I usually have the luxury of going to work frumpy and wearing boots, but I do own a few pieces of good clothing, and if I lost my job I would not be giving them away to befit my lower status. I would actually wear them much more often, and maintain them carefully, because I would not be hirable for well-paying jobs wearing clothes that indicated low status. Surely this well-dressed food stamp user, if recently unemployed, ought to be trying to find a new job so that she doesn’t have to keep taking food stamps. To do that, she has to comply with the expectations of the hiring class. There are a lot of people who are only qualified for white-collar office jobs. If you do something you find more meaningful, it’s fine for you to scorn that way of life, but you can’t expect people to give it up readily when their alternative choices would be limited to fry-cook or Walmart-slave.

  36. you can always buy cheap foods on any supermarket these days because food production is mechanized already ”:

  37. 12. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  38. Simon Gruman says:

    If I had some kind of antique or exotic car then the last place I would want to store it is in some kind of storage facility

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