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Who Really Receives Food Stamps?

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As with other groups, there is a stereotype of food stamp, or SNAP benefit, recipients. Many people believe that most food stamp recipients resemble President Ronald Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen”; women of color who would rather collect money from the government than go to work, poor families who have more kids than they can afford, or some combination of the two. However, the actual demographics of SNAP benefit users are quite different from this stereotype.

Perhaps the most important demographical fact about food stamp recipients is that around 40% are white. However, many politicians continue reinforce the idea that welfare programs are used almost exclusively by minority populations. For example, in 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum said, “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money, I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”

Data from the USDA released in 2013 showed the breakdown of SNAP recipients: 40.2 percent are white, 25.7 percent are Black, 10.3 percent of recipients are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian, and 1.2 percent of SNAP recipients are Native American. Read more

This kind of rhetoric is problematic for several reasons. First, it perpetuates the incorrect stereotype of minority populations especially with African-American’s being portrayed as the only group on any kind of social benefit programs. Additionally, it explicitly implies that people who receive benefits are doing so to avoid working, and if they were willing to look for and accept work, they would no longer need the benefits. Finally, it perpetuates the negative stigma associated with being on a social assistance program, which could make people less likely to seek assistance if needed.

If food stamp beneficiaries are not able-bodied, black, and unwilling to work, who are they? Around 80% of SNAP benefit users either have children (40%), are disabled (20%), or are over the age of sixty-five (17%). While there are able-bodied, young, single people who receive food stamps, they are by no means the majority. Additionally, many states are in the process of purging the program of these individuals with approximately half a million users set to lose their benefits in the next year. This means that it will be even less common for young, healthy, single individuals to receive SNAP which will overwhelming affect foster children who age of the system with no to low support systems.

Many food stamp users belong to a demographic known as the working poor. These are individuals and families who are working, but they are in jobs that do not offer enough hours or enough money to truly remove them from poverty. Approximately 30% of food stamp recipients are working in some capacity. However, due to their income and/or family size, they still qualify for food stamps and other means-tested programs such as Medicaid.

Unfortunately, despite evidence to the contrary, the negative stereotype of the food stamp user persists. One way to combat negative stereotypes is to speak up about the reality, However, it is understandable that many benefit recipients are hesitant to do so. It is imperative for social workers and other service providers to help combat this stigma by speaking out on behalf of our clients.

Elizabeth W. Crew is an MSW student at Simmons College. When she's not reading or writing about social work, social justice, and food, Elizabeth enjoys spending time with friends, snuggling her pup, and watching crime dramas.

          
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