For anyone following Newark Mayor Cory Booker on Twitter, or keeping up with him in the news, Tuesday, December 4th was the big day. Booker will try to live a week on the monetary equivalent of the average SNAP benefit, which comes out to $1.40 a meal. Newark’s mayor will demonstrate how tough it is for low-income families to cover the cost of a healthy diet, especially if the main resource for their grocery budget is SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps.
Booker is not the first politician to take the challenge. However, his prominence has turned the endeavor into national news, and it is worth a brief discussion about how the numbers play out in Oklahoma, where 880,939 people received SNAP benefits in 2011.
First some background. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is designed to do just what the name suggests: act as a supplement to other income. Recent numbers from the American Community Survey (ACS) show the program is largely living up to its name in Oklahoma, where an estimated 77% of participants are working families.
The supplemental income provided by SNAP in Oklahoma amounts to $1541.16 annually. The value is loaded onto a card, similar to a debit card, and funds can only be used on qualified food items; so no diapers, no alcohol, no dog food, and no vitamins.
To qualify for SNAP in Oklahoma, monthly household income for a family of four must fall below $2,422, or $29,064 annually. Combining the average SNAP benefit with the maximum allowable income in this scenario puts total household income at $30,605.16. According to Federal Poverty Guidelines, this combined total puts a family of four at about 137% of the poverty level. This amount is still well within the guidelines of what the government considers “low-income” in the Tulsa metro area. Obviously, SNAP is not catapulting people into the lifestyle of the upper middle class. However, the money helps alleviate hunger, and since the problem of long-term unemployment continues to worry economists, SNAP may increasingly serve as an important lifeline after unemployment benefits run out.
According to the USDA, in 2011 Oklahoma’s average SNAP benefit per person was $128.43 a month. If we divide this by a 30 day month, families are looking at a daily budget of about $4.28. Right away I see a problem with this budget compared my own eating habits. If I breakdown and buy a soda from the vending machine at work, I only have $3.03 left in my daily meal budget. My favorite protein shake, my go-to meal on a busy day, costs around $1.49 per bottle, even at the cheapest store. Clearly some changes need to be made.
Scanning the aisles at the grocery store I begin to see chicken noodle soup, oatmeal and beans in my future. At this point, I haven’t even accepted the challenge, and I’m looking for a way to out. How can I maintain a balanced diet on that budget? But remember, this benefit is supposed to be a supplement, so what about all that other family income?
Here’s the thing, as mentioned before, a family of four in Oklahoma can only bring in $29,064 a year to qualify for SNAP. If this family were living rent free, with no utility bills, no transportation costs and no extra money was spent on cleaning supplies, clothes, child care, medical bills, diapers or basic hygiene, their income would provide for $6.63 per person, per meal. Not too bad. However, if they needed to pay for any of the things I just excluded, the amount left over for the food budget would quickly shrink.
A recent study shows most households in the Tulsa area spend more than 45% of their income on of housing and transportation costs. Take 45% out of a SNAP family’s budget and a family of four is left with $15,985 or less a year to meet other needs. Suddenly they are down to about $3.65 a meal. And still, if the baby needs diapers, the kids need clothes, or anyone gets sick, the amount of money left over for food keeps shrinking. Also remember, the income amounts discussed in this example are the maximum allowable, not the average income of SNAP recipients, so for many Oklahoma families the food budget is even more problematic.
Rather than take the SNAP challenge, it is easier on a person’s lifestyle to just run the numbers and come to the conclusion that SNAP meets an important need for low-income families. However, actually shopping for food on a restricted budget provides a more lasting experience. Providing an experience that clears up misconceptions is the point of the SNAP Challenge. Walking a mile in your neighbor’s shoes like this may well leave people with an empty stomach, but perhaps it will also leave them with a larger heart for people in poverty.
For more information on SNAP/Food Stamp Challenges you can visit the Family Research and Action Center website.