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4 Absurd, Damaging Right-Wing Lies About Food Stamps

Hipsters abusing food stamps, recipients buying nothing but McDonald's ... the many myths about the federal food stamp program poison the public's perception of it.

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2. There are too many "hipsters" and college students on food stamps.

Since the start of the Great Recession, the food stamp population has almost doubled, from 26 million in 2007 to between 45 and 47 million starting in 2009. This increase has largely been the result of the cratering economy and persistent unemployment making more Americans poorer and therefore eligible for food stamps. But the government also set higher income eligibility limits in recent years (130 percent of the poverty line, or annual income of $14,157 for an individual) and eased accessibility restrictions on the unemployed and childless.

These changing criteria should be welcomed. Too frequently social programs (e.g., Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit) are limited to families, while low-income people without children are left to fend for themselves. These attempts to bring policy in line with economic realities have broadened access to food assistance to demographics that stretch the stereotypical image of "poverty," including jobless professionals, students, young people and people with middle-class backgrounds.

Presumably it is these people who the Wall Street Journal refers to as "trust fund babies driving Rolls Royces [getting] free food courtesy of Uncle Sam." Salon's coverage of this non-issue brought swarms of commenters (478 as of this writing), some of whom responded humanely, but many who denounced "self-imposed poverty" and called the "hipster" recipients a "burden to society."

"There are some people who may have a hip looking haircut or a tattoo who are unemployed or underemployed and have the same legal rights and moral rights to food as anyone else," noted Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?. "Anyway, the vast majority of people who are using food stamps were poor, and are now poorer."

The "hipsters on food stamps" narrative gets a spotlight that is disproportionate to actual trends. For one thing, beneficiaries aren't "secretly middle-class." Close to 90 percent of households that use SNAP live below the poverty line, while 40 percent of households live at half of the poverty line (less than $10,000 a year for a family of three). According to the USDA, close to half of the beneficiaries are children (48 percent), and another 8 percent are over 60. A majority of those who are of working age are working. In the 1990s, half of new food stamp beneficiaries participated in the program for eight months or less -- basically, until they found a job. There is no reason to assume that the same isn't true for today's beneficiaries; it just takes them longer to find employment.

SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who is eligible can gain access. Just because someone graduated from college, or grew up outside of poverty, doesn't mean she don't need help now. This recession devastated the assets and savings accounts of many middle-class people, so relying on family isn't an option for many individuals. Meanwhile, the job market remains exceptionally weak. More people need food assistance now, no matter their background.

3. Recipients "waste" their benefits on unhealthy food.

Many policy analysts and other influential figures argue that recipients should not be allowed to use food stamps to purchase soda or other junk food. This proposal is both demeaning and doesn't address any actual problems. First of all, there is little evidence that, given options, low-income people eat less healthily than middle-class people. (One recent study shows that poor people tend to eat less fast food than their middle-class counterparts -- and food stamps can't be used to purchase hot food anyway.) It isn't as though food stamp beneficiaries are buying unusual amounts of soda, candy, other junk food. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Almost 90 percent of the food consumed by food SNAP households goes to fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, or dairy products."

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