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Signing Up For Food Stamps: The Choice And The Stigma


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Another promising report today suggests that the economy in general and employment in particular continue to improve, but there's another statistic that's more troubling. More Americans than ever participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Eligibility is based on income, and 47 million people have made the often wrenching decision to take help from the government to put food on the table. Millions more qualify, but they may not know they're eligible, they may be embarrassed, or they may not want to accept government help.

We want to hear your stories today. If you get food stamps, if you're thinking about it, call and tell us about your decision, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, an unusual path to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Garrett Brown of Steadicam fame will join us.

But let's start with food stamps and go to the phones, and this is JT(ph) with us from Janesville, Wisconsin.

JT: Hi Neal.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead.

JT: Hi, yeah, when I was in my 20s, I was working poor and was too proud to get food stamps, and it was hard. Now I'm in my 30s, and I have a wife and a baby, and we enrolled in Wisconsin's stamp program, and I'm very grateful for it.

CONAN: And the difference is that child I suspect?

JT: The child, and also I'm not as proud as I was in my 20s.

CONAN: Though was it a difficult decision when you thought about it?

JT: No, no, because of the child. It's good for my family. We're able to eat nutritious food that we wouldn't be able to afford otherwise, and I just want to give my son a heads-up.

CONAN: And the other - there's no sense of stigma attached to it anymore?

JT: No, I'm not ashamed of it at all.

CONAN: All right, and as you go ahead, do you have any advice for those who might be concerned that, well, people are going to notice this?

JT: You know, if you need it, if your family's hungry, then the service is there. You work; it's not an unearned benefit. You work for this. You pay your taxes for this program.

CONAN: And you're working?

JT: I do work, yes.

CONAN: And so you still qualify for SNAP?

JT: I do still, yes.

CONAN: It's amazing how many jobs you can have and still qualify for food stamps.

JT: Very true.

CONAN: All right, good luck to you, JT, and we hope that you earn way too much for food stamps pretty soon.


JT: Right on. Thank you, Neal, love the show.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Joining us now is Krissy Clark, a senior reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk. She's with us from Marketplace studios in Los Angeles. Good of you to be with us.

KRISSY CLARK, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about those statistics. The number of people like JT who have been signing up for food stamps, for SNAP, it's been exploding these last few years.

CLARK: It has. You know, to give you a sense of it, the food stamps have been rising since the early 2000s, but then even rising faster since the great recession in 2008. And there's a lot of economic and policy forces at work here, which we should get to. But just to give you a sense of the growth first, so there's been a lot of talk about the growth in the last few years focusing on just the last few, you know, focusing on the last few years.

I think it's helpful to get a longer perspective. In 1975, eight percent of all Americans received government-paid food assistance. Up through the '90s, that level hovered between about eight percent and 11 percent. Then in the '90s there was a really steep decline, down to about six percent. But starting in the early 2000s, it steadily started to increase, food stamp use, then it really started to spike in about 2008, right when the great recession kicked in.

And now food stamp use is up to unprecedented levels. Almost 15 percent of Americans are on SNAP, or about one in seven people.

CONAN: Now you talked about both policy and economic reasons. The economy, it's been bad.

CLARK: Right, exactly, and that's what had some people scratching their heads a little bit recently because now, you know, in the last few years, the economy has kind of started to improve, and unemployment is starting to decline, and yet the growth in food stamp use doesn't seem to be yet.

And so there's a lot of pontificating and trying to figure out exactly why that - why those things aren't sort of going in line right now.

CONAN: And the policy reasons?

CLARK: So there's some - so on the policy side, you know, it really started actually in the Bush administration, and then it's continued into the Obama administration. Since the early 2000s, food stamps have become a lot easier to apply for, they've been available to more people, and they have a lot less stigma.

And in fact, you know, we're using the word - the official word is SNAP now, that stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That connects to this - sort of this lack of - or this lessening of stigma that there is a concerted effort to people had a certain association with the word food stamp. And so Congress decided about five years ago to change the name.

You no longer actually have to grab a food - grab a coupon of food stamps out of your pocket when you go to the grocery store. You have a little electronic credit-card-looking thing that you use. So a lot of these efforts to make food stamps more accessible to people who qualified for them have increased these rolls.

CONAN: And it's also that more people who are eligible for food stamps, a greater percentage, seem to be applying for it.

CLARK: Yes, and you know, the gentleman who we just heard from who called I think speaks to a really interesting point, which is that even now that the economy does seem to be improving, a lot of that growth in jobs right now is happening at the very low end of the income spectrum.

So there are a lot of people who maybe have jobs but still qualify for food stamps because they're not making enough money.

CONAN: And it's about $15,000 per year for an individual, is that right?

CLARK: Yeah, let's see. I have some basics right here. The average monthly benefit is about $133, and that can be used to buy household staples like cereal and meats and fruits and milk. And in order to qualify, you have to make right around 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and that translates to about if you're a household of three, that translates to making about $25,000 a year or less.

CONAN: OK, let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Matt(ph), and Matt's on the line with us from McCall, Idaho.

MATT: Hi Neal.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

MATT: I just wanted to call and let everybody know that the program is a huge benefit to myself and my wife. And I've always been a supporter, just vaguely, I guess, in the past. It's not a program that ever caught my attention as something that I was against or didn't appreciate that existed. And it was a surprise that...

CONAN: A lot of people appreciate, though, but appreciate it, well, that's really good for other people.

MATT: Yeah, exactly. And until we came to a point where we had to make the decision that we needed to go down and go through the steps to apply and utilize the program, you know, it didn't really set in just how important it really is. It was - it's an incredible program, and we feel extremely fortunate that we were able to utilize it.

It was for about six months. We're small business owners, and we started our business in about 2009. So, you know, the economy was just starting to really get junky. And it was huge. It was huge for us.

CONAN: And did either you or your partner, I don't know if you're married, did either you or your partner have any qualms?

MATT: Personally?

CONAN: Yeah.

MATT: Sure. Yeah, we had to talk about it. And it was - yeah we did. We had to talk through it emotionally, just ourselves as individuals, and how we felt about it as a married couple. And we don't have children, but we have our lives we're leading and very - I mean, obviously just to be able to qualify for it, you know, you can - that gives you an example of the kind of revenue we had coming in personally.

And then just in terms of the community in general, it's just not talked about. People don't - you don't really talk with people about it out in the community. I'm sure it gets talked about, but it's not something that comes up a lot. It comes out maybe in the greater political discussion, and I do think there's stigma out there, I really do.

I think the way they - you know, with changing it from food stamps to SNAP, I mean, that makes sense, and it's a rational thing to do. But I do think there is a stigma out there in the greater community in the United States, I really do.

CONAN: Well, we're glad, Matt, you're off.

MATT: Yeah, it's great to be off, it really is.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to add this email in, this from Sam(ph) in Illinois: When I ran for state Senate in Illinois in 1986, I advocated the Senate taking action to encourage people to be eligible for food stamps, get on them. The reasoning was: one, it brings more money to Illinois, stimulates our economy; two, Illinois sends more tax dollars to Washington than it gets back in benefits, this would help right that imbalance.

Boy did I get royally criticized for this. Critics said I was promoting welfare. And this is a controversial idea, Krissy Clark.

CLARK: Right, you know, it gets to sort of the division between who is in charge of these programs at the federal level or the state level, really brings out a lot of tensions because, you know, you hear a lot of - a lot of people worried about the federal deficit saying hey, you know, we're paying for all of this, we're paying 100 percent at the federal level for the actual benefits.

The states pay for half of the administration costs, but of course the bulk of the money goes into actually paying for the benefits. And so meanwhile you have states who are trying different ways of recruiting more people to use them because they don't want this stuff to go unused. It also is useful for states because it actually brings federal money as a sort of economic stimulus to grocery stores and to farmers who are making more food.

So there's a bit of a kind of - I don't know if conflict of interest is the right word, but on the - states have a lot of incentive to be increasing the number of people on food stamps. Meanwhile, they don't have to pay for a lot of the pain that that puts on - sort of on our budget.

CONAN: And quickly, I think two Republican senators filed legislation last week that would quote-unquote streamline SNAP, in other words reduce benefits.

CLARK: Right, and actually there's a lot of legislation in the works that is looking at different ways of cutting the costs to SNAP, and that has a lot of food security and sort of, you know, hunger advocates very worried. There are a couple - the Farm Bill is about to be marked up in both the House and the Senate, probably in - early next month. And both versions, at least last we heard, were looking at cuts anywhere from a few billion to several tens of billions of dollars in cuts.

CONAN: We have to remember SNAP, as it's now called, or food stamps, a product - comes out of the Department of Agriculture, it's not out of the HHS department. Krissy Clark, we know you're on deadline. Thank you very much for your time today.

CLARK: Thank you.

CONAN: Krissy Clark is a senior reporter with Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk. She joined us today from the Marketplace studios in Los Angeles. If you use food stamps, if you're thinking about enrolling in SNAP, call and tell us about your decision, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Food stamps have been around for decades. The first iteration of the program in 1939 involved a system of orange and blue stamps used to buy food. That lasted just four years.

The modern program really got rolling in August 1964 with the Food Stamp Act under the Johnson administration. Since then, recipients have moved from receiving actual stamps to debit cards and can buy everything from bread to milk to fish to feed their households. Hot foods, foods eaten in the store, alcohol, tobacco are not covered. Recipients can use SNAP to pay for vegetable seeds and plants.

If you get food stamps, if you're thinking about, call and tell us your story. How did you decide to enroll or not to? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Felix, Felix on the line with us from St. Louis.

FELIX: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

FELIX: Hi. I'm a little bit unusual, I think. I'm a - for 35 years I've been a certified financial planner professionally. This is what I do. And I have a double whammy when nine months ago I had to apply for food stamps because my income has dropped by 98 percent over the last six years due to the economy. And I'm still living in a beautiful gated community, which I bought 20-some years ago when I was making three and four hundred thousand dollars a year.

So I'm surrounded by very staunch conservative people who consistently talk down about food stamp recipients, and I cannot say one word out loud. Also because I am a certified financial planner, if word got out that I was on food stamps, none of my neighbors would approach me to buy retirement products or annuities or life insurance or anything.

Can you only imagine your trusted advisor himself is on food stamps? So I have a double whammy where I must remain incommunicado. I must sit and listen while they condemn others that are on food stamps, including other neighbors that word has leaked out are on them. So it's a very, very, very difficult situation.

CONAN: When you speak of those people in your community who would have talked down those who get government assistance, would that have included you not so long ago?

FELIX: No, never would that have included me. I would have never been that way. I'm of a different stripe both socially, mentally and politically. But here in the state of Missouri, we're surrounded by extremely conservative people who just can't imagine that others are suffering. They're part of the one-percenters.

So ironically enough, I can't get out of it. I'm surrounded by the inmates in the asylum, if you'll accept the analogy.

CONAN: Well, we hope those inmates turn to you for financial advice, and you can escape at least your financial plight.

FELIX: I sure hope so, could use the commissions. Just for the record, 500,000 CFPs and life insurance agents have left the industry in the last five years because business has become so bad.

CONAN: CFPs are certified financial planners.

FELIX: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Yeah, well, Felix, good luck.

FELIX: Thank you.

CONAN: For many of those eligible to receive food stamps, the decision is not easy. Just listen to Felix there. Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow recently profiled Dillie Nerios, a benefits coordinator for the Treasure Coast Food Bank in Fort Pierce, Florida. One of Dillie's jobs is to make sure those in need in her region know that help is available and know how to get it.

Dillie Nerios joins us now from member station WKCS in Fort Pierce. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

DILLIE NERIOS: Yes, hi, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And as you do your outreach, Dillie, what do you find? Do most people who are eligible for SNAP even know that they are?

NERIOS: Well, some people that I approach, most of them feel like - well, they're not sure. We - it's on a, you know, case by case, and most of them when I first approach them aren't necessarily sure. But when we start talking a little bit about their income and their expenses, it can become pretty clear that they really should be on the program.

CONAN: And that Washington Post story had a really interesting account of your outreach toward the elder community, people who are - we talked about a greater percentage of those eligible now applying for food stamps, but in fact in the elderly community it's - most of those who are eligible do not apply. And you've got an interesting approach. Can you describe it?

NERIOS: Well, I've always had a connection to that population, and so back in 2010 the Treasure Cove Food Bank, who is a partner, of course, with Feeding America, started this mobile outreach program, and that's to go out within - throughout our four-county area, with the help of our partner agencies, our food pantries, to go out and reach the areas that are underserved and those who don't - who come to the pantries.

So in doing so, then I can go to the pantry, spend some time while their hours of operation are - when they're open, and speak to the people that come through the lines. And this is how I have found that there is a lot of seniors that'll take the time to come through, you know, a food line, a food pantry line, but they won't connect to the food stamps.

So that's my opportunity to talk to them about the SNAP program and get them connected.

CONAN: Do you find people are embarrassed?

NERIOS: Yes, I do. This is like an ongoing thing with this population. They're ashamed. Most of them think because they get a Social Security check and in some cases just a little over $600, they think I won't qualify. But again, once you start talking to them, one on one, then they start to see that maybe this is something they need to do.

It's not always a quick yes. A lot of times it's I'll think about it. But a lot of them do.

CONAN: And do you find that there are some people who just say, you know, I don't want to take a government handout?

NERIOS: That's exactly what they say. They say no, no, that belongs to the poor people, or that - you know, I get a check. I think a lot of them believe that because they get a Social Security check, they won't qualify, and that's not true. So - and again, it's all on a one - a case by case, and that's what we strive to do is to talk to everybody that walks through the line during the pantry hours that, you know, when they're open.

CONAN: And do you also find that those who are in need - well, SNAP can make an important difference in their lives.

NERIOS: Of course, and they could, instead of skimping on meals or something, they can go out and buy healthy, nutritious foods they need and just put food on the table throughout the month and not just - you know, they skimp a lot.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Jane, and Jane's on the line with us from Little Rock.

JANE: Hi, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, Jane.

JANE: Yeah, I graduated college in 2011, and I - I mean I grew up in a middle-class family, and I worked on Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, but when I graduated from college, I had student loan debt, and I was unable to find a job that could really - so pretty much at the end of the month I didn't have enough money to really buy good, nutritious food.

And so last April I looked at the SNAP application and was really considering it. And, I mean, I admit the stigma was definitely there. I couldn't believe that I was in this position, and - but I knew that it was something that I needed to. But ironically I applied for a job with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and I got a job working with food insecurity and helping people apply for SNAP.

And because of that, I didn't have to myself go on SNAP, but every day I see people that struggle just like I did. And it's not something that is just for people that are poor. It's for anybody, really, that is struggling with a financial situation that just needs help and assistance. And that's - I mean, that's my story behind SNAP.

CONAN: So you're doing exactly what Dillie Nerios is doing, reaching out to people?

JANE: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we work with mobile enrollment units. So we have four SNAPmobiles that travel around the state, and Arkansas is a very hungry place. A lot of people struggle with food insecurity. A lot of people - like she was talking about, the elderly, they think that - because like she said - they're getting a Social Security check, so they're getting money or that that if for some reason they take SNAP, that other people aren't going to get it, which just isn't true.

It's overcoming those barriers and the stigma and the lies that people believe about SNAP. But unfortunately our culture and political system has influence which is just not helpful at all to people that really need help.

CONAN: I wonder if I could ask you: As a younger person, well, if people like you, just out of college, if they're unable to find a job, well, this is a government program. Do you find that they're easier to get to sign up?

JANE: Yeah, I mean, it - thankfully I grew up with the awareness of food stamps and SNAP. And I mean it wasn't very hard for me to figure out how to apply for SNAP, but I'm sure there are people that - I mean I know that there are people that really do have a challenge with that. So yeah, and especially we see in Arkansas people that have come to the country illegally, they are in desperate need of SNAP, or even if they are citizens here, they feel (unintelligible) go into a government office to apply for SNAP, or they don't know how to read, the application is a real challenge for them.

So I'm thankful that where I live, that people influenced me to go apply for SNAP, And it still wasn't something that was an easy decision to do. There was a lot of stigma there, and I just had to get over it and accept that it was an OK thing, and it was something I really needed. So, yeah.

CONAN: Jane, thanks very much for the call.

JANE: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. And, Dillie Nerios, as you heard her story, I wonder, there's a sense, if you're a younger person, that there's no sense of failure. If you're an older person who's worked their whole life and suddenly finds themselves in a different category, it's really hard to apply for this, isn't it?

NERIOS: Well, for most of the senior population, first of all, most of the applications are done online. So they're afraid of computers, or they're - they just - they have no knowledge of computers, and so they don't really get the exposure. But this is why it's so good to have the - to partner with our agencies, where you can go and meet these folks - again, one on one - and speak to them and open up that avenue for them and make it easy.

So we get these clients, and I'll schedule myself out there, go out there, and then I'll ask them to bring, you know, the appropriate documents, and then we'll sit down and do their application. The most wonderful part of this is when they come back to you with their EBT card, which makes it so much easier now - it's much more dignified than the old coupon - to activate them. And then off they go to the grocery store.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Tyner(ph): I'm a 22-year-old white male student. I've applied for SNAP twice. Both times, I've never completed the process because I know that I would feel extreme shame when trying to use it. I fear being stigmatized for being part of the food stamp culture. Living on $8,000 a year with minimal help from my parents and a massive student loan debt is extremely challenging.

So it's not just older people that have problems with the stigma. This is from Mandy in Tulsa: SNAP was an amazing assistance after my late husband became ill, and then after he passed away. Caring for him was a full-time job in itself. He was no longer able to continue his welding career. We moved to Oklahoma to be closer to family after he died. I live with family, but I was another mouth to feed, and they could not afford to feed me. SNAP was a huge blessing during that time. I was 23 when my husband died. Since then, I've worked full time. SNAP is an amazing benefit for those who truly have a need for it. It made a big difference in my life during that mourning phase when I was not prepared to go out and find a new job.

We're talking about SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Kelly's(ph) on the line, Kelly calling us from Cookeville in Tennessee.

KELLY: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KELLY: Well, I wanted to talk about - I'm a young married woman. I'm 25. We got on food stamps about a year and a half ago. It was a tough decision. And, in fact, if husband hadn't really kind of encouraged me to do it, I would have been very much against it. What swayed my decision eventually was just realizing how unhealthy the choices that we were eating more, because that's all that we could afford.

The groceries that we were purchasing were just, you know, really nutritionally empty. You know, you can only eat ramen so many times. Now, we - I mean, it's been a huge help. He works full-time. I work part-time. That's all that's, you know, available in our area. And it's a huge stress relief to be able to say, yes, I can go buy some fresh fruits - so, you know, vegetables and, you know, the things that I need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, because we were very unhealthy eating as poorly as we were.

CONAN: And that's important, Dillie Nerios, as you talk to people about this program, the difference between able to get, well, just the things you can afford and eating correctly, eating properly.

NERIOS: That is correct. And this is so beneficial for the folks that are out there who do receive SNAP benefits, because they can - don't have to skimp on their grocery shopping. They can buy better things with the SNAP.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your email earlier that you mentioned about the young man who'd applied twice and didn't want to because he didn't - he was embarrassed about - you know, with the EBT card, it looks just like an ATM now, it's - an ATM card, you know, you could - you probably have done this a dozen times.

You'll go to the grocery store, and you'll run it through the thing. People don't even - can't even see your card. And then you go in and put your code. It works in the exact same way. I'm sure your caller can testify to that. It's, like, so easy to use, and no one knows anymore. You're not pulling out these old coupons that you used to, and then count them out in front of somebody.

It's as easy as using your own private ATM, you know, ATM card. So that young man needs to reapply, get his card and go to the grocery store, get him some healthy food.

CONAN: Barbara's on the line with us from Alameda in California.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

BARBARA: I've just turned 62, so I'll go on Social Security in another month. But I got on the - on food stamps about two years ago when my unemployment had gone out. And I had been an attorney, so I was really embarrassed about this. But then when I had breast cancer, I realized that I would go for any support that I could get, because I had no insurance. I had nothing.

And I did volunteer work up until that time with elders, and I agree many of them are just so confused by it. And unfortunately, not every office is as nice as the people you've got on the phone. Many of them came to me not understanding what was happening to them.

And so it's a program that should be encouraged. Those of us that worked, we worked hard while we did, and we worked to try and find another job. But like myself, when I couldn't, when I was being treated, it was a godsend, and I really, really appreciate having it. And I hope more folks who have the time, who have money, will help others to understand what's going on.

CONAN: And how are you doing now, Barbara?

BARBARA: Great. They got it very early, and they tell me I have the same statistical chances living as long as I would before I had the breast cancer. So I'm great.

CONAN: That's great news.

NERIOS: Wonderful.

BARBARA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Good luck.

BARBARA: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: And I wanted to thank you, Dillie Nerios, for your time today. Stories like that really make you feel good about the kind of program you're involved with.

NERIOS: And thank you for the exposure, Neal. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Dillie Nerios is the partner relations and benefits coordinator for the Treasure Coast Food Bank in Fort Pierce, in Florida. She joins us today from member station WQCS in Fort Pierce. Coming up, the man responsible for that great shot of Rocky running up the art museum steps in Philadelphia, those sweeping, over-the-field angles of the gridiron on Monday Night Football. Garrett Brown will join us next on his way to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.