Struggles in the ‘burbs’: One family’s story about why safety nets are needed

Thirty dollars to budget for groceries is not a hardship for one trip, but imagine if that was your food budget for two weeks. What food would you purchase? How often would you go out to dinner?

Now, put yourself in Rachel Jones’ shoes. She not only has to limit the grocery bill to $30 every two weeks for herself, but that $30 has to cover her husband, two-year old son and new born daughter. Rachel works full-time, but her husband lost his temporary position two months after their daughter was born. Tensions ride high the last days before her paycheck arrives and then the money disappears as quickly as it is deposited into the bank, to cover monthly bills, diapers, gas (needed to get to work) and all necessary costs to keep control of their growing debt. Food becomes the last expense to consider. For the Jones family, this was their reality two years ago, as it was for 15% of people in the U.S. that lived below poverty in 2010.

In 2011, the U.S. median family household income declined by 1.5% in real terms from 2010.1 This is an indicator that incomes did not rise, yet inflation did; the same income households made in 2011 could not be used to purchase as much as it did in 2010.

Both Rachel and her husband, Josh, were raised without need; always worked and paid the bills, until Josh lost the temporary position he had. As they struggled through this trying time in life, Rachel continued to work every day and Josh looked for a job, but he found the same trial that hundreds of thousands of Coloradans found between 2007 and 2011. Jobs were scarce and this middle-class Parker family felt that common burden.

In actuality, more than 100,000 Colorado job positions were eliminated between 2007 and 2011.2 The effects of the recession in 2007 took hold of Rachel and Josh’s family in 2009. They struggled through the end of the pregnancy and the birth of their second child, eating Ramen Noodles every day. There wasn’t an option for produce or protein, just chicken or beef-flavored noodles. Many of their friends and family did not see a hungry family when they met with Rachel, Josh and their kids. Rachel didn’t want everyone to know because with some, she “felt like a failure.”

While Rachel and Josh never had extra money, this situation of need was new for the young family and they didn’t know there were people and programs to help them. Josh and Rachel were classified as a “food-insecure household.” To put this in real terms, it means they did not have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Their two small children were not receiving the nutrients needed to grow and develop. The adults were not receiving the nutrients needed to focus and be healthy. They were part of the 20.6% of households in America that struggled to put enough nutritious food on the table in 2011.3

Several times while driving to and from work during this time, Rachel heard the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, being promoted on the radio. Never had she thought her family would need such a program and neither did she want to use “stamps” at a grocery store to advertise her family’s struggle.

Rachel shared: “I’m one to not draw attention to myself, so the thought that I might have to use stamps that would take longer and draw a line behind me —that  would be embarrassing. Then people might judge me when they didn’t have the whole story.”

But her understanding of SNAP changed when she was visiting with a close friend whose family was also hit hard by the recession. Her friend’s husband had lost work and consequently the family of five lost their comfortable home and paycheck. They were “making it” by using their SNAP electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card for groceries each month. Dispelling the myths about being singled out in the grocery line by using physical stamps for specific food products, and that SNAP is a program only for those on welfare, Rachel’s friend convinced her to look into the safety-net, public health program.

Rachel did look into SNAP, and she and her husband decided to enroll in the program. Once everything was verified and they were approved to receive $550 a month in SNAP benefits, their daughter was ready for baby food —something they could not have purchased without SNAP benefits. Their benefits allowed them to increase their food spending by $34 per person each week. Rachel’s thought when they were approved, “Woo hoo, we have money to go [grocery] shopping now.

To Rachel and Josh, this meant they could purchase food to prepare entire meals. “It was nice to be able to eat at home,” she shared.

In the U.S., the typical household spent $47.50 per person per week on food in 20114, which still put Josh and Rachel below the average in food expenses. However, Rachel was excited about the support and elaborated to say, “Before, if we had to pay a bill late, oh, well, we did that and bought a little more food.” She expounded, SNAP “enabled us to buy stuff in general” and “bills were paid on time.”

For 11 months, Rachel, Josh and their children benefited from SNAP. During the time that they used SNAP, Josh started working another temporary job. He was hopeful that it would turn into a permanent position, but there were no guarantees. Soon after Josh’s temporary position started, they had to go through the SNAP redetermination period. With the added income from Josh’s job, they no longer qualified for their original allotment and the SNAP benefits were cut to $220 per month. On the subsequent redetermination, they opted out of the program, confident that Josh’s job would become permanent. For two months, their budget was tight, but that didn’t matter to them when the permanent job came through and they were secure in their budget again.

Rachel and Josh could be anybody’s neighbors, but they aren’t. They live in Parker, a suburban middle and upper-class community where hard-working families live next door; a place where families are experiencing unfamiliar struggles and consequences of the 2007 recession. Safety-net programs, such as SNAP, were put in place to temporarily support families like it did for Rachel and Josh.

Does Rachel and Josh’s story hit home with you? In any way, does this make you think differently about SNAP?

 

1 Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson. 2012. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States in 2011. USDA, Economic Research Service. Available at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err141.aspx.

2 Felson, Benjamin. 2012. State of Working Colorado. Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute. Available at: http://www.cclponline.org/uploads/files/State_of_Working_Colorado_2012_final_b.pdf.

3 Household Food Security in the United States in 2011

4 Household Food Security in the United States in 2011

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