This is an expanded and revised version of an op-ed that ran in The Oklahoman.
The Oklahoma Republican Party recently ignited a local and national firestorm with a Facebook post pointing out a so-called irony of signs in national parks warning that feeding animals can create dependence on handouts at a time when a growing number of Americans are receiving federal food stamp benefits.
The post, which was later deleted, displayed a callous and mistaken understanding of the food stamp program and the people it serves. The program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is among the most effective ways that the United States helps hard-pressed families to stay afloat and ensure they can afford enough to eat.
SNAP’s main purpose is to increase the food purchasing power of eligible low-income households in order to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. As its name suggests, the program is intended to supplement other sources of income, rather than cover a household’s entire food budget. In 2014, the average participating individual in Oklahoma received $122 in monthly benefits, or about $4 a day, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Currently in Oklahoma, just over 600,000 people receive SNAP benefits each month and close to 900,000, or nearly one in four Oklahomans, receive assistance at some point during the year. Of these, the vast majority are low-income seniors, people with chronic disabilities, or children. The smallest category of recipients are working-age adults without dependent children and without a disability, who are limited to three months of benefits while unemployed before being subject to a 20-hour-per-week work requirement. Just 2 percent of the SNAP population in Oklahoma falls under this category, according to DHS.
Contrary to the stereotypes expressed by the Facebook post, SNAP has become quite effective in supporting work, not undermining it. “The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so,” noted the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a 2013 study of the labor force participation of SNAP benefits. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, able-bodied adult, more than half work – and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children.
“It is not moral failure or government bureaucracy run amok that is causing Oklahoma’s high SNAP enrollment…It is that our economy is not creating enough good-paying, full-time jobs to allow families and individuals to get by without support”
So many low-paying jobs and underemployment are why SNAP participation levels have barely fallen from their highest levels during the deep recession of 2008-2010. Community food banks and local food pantries and soup kitchens similarly report sustained high need for their services, even as the state’s overall economy has improved. Oklahoma’s uneven recovery is leaving many families behind.
Rather than spreading false stereotypes about those Oklahomans who benefit from public safety net programs, we should be focused on creating more opportunities for workers to earn a decent living. Raising the minimum wage and boosting overtime protections, as well as investing more in quality education and job training, are indispensable parts of this strategy.
Still, while unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, and myriad personal and family challenges leave many Oklahomans earning too little to get by, the safety net is succeeding in keeping many afloat. A recent report from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities found that thanks to SNAP, the poverty rate was reduced to 10.5 percent for all Oklahomans from 14.3 percent and to 10.2 percent for children from 17.7 percent. Social Security and refundable tax credits for low-income working families also have a major impact in lifting family incomes above the poverty level.
Beyond all the data, the insensitive food stamp comment raises more fundamental questions about how we treat the less fortunate. It so happened that the controversy erupted on July 14th, the birth date of native son Woody Guthrie. In the second-to-last verse of his most famous and beloved song, This Land is Your Land, Guthrie asked a question and posed a challenge that still resonate with a deep moral urgency today:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?