Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I am “on food stamps.”

My wife and I are “on food stamps.” Unlike many families, we’re doing so voluntarily.

We’re not actually receiving food stamps but living on a “food stamp” grocery budget for Lent. Why? First, to be in solidarity with those who, from time to time in their lives, find it necessary to apply for food stamps in order to put food on the family table.

Second, we’re doing so in order to donate the difference between the amount of money we’d otherwise spend eating during Lent to a fund our church established to provide some help to poor families in our community. Let me know if you want to help!

Make no mistake. We realize it’s impossible for us to fully experience what it’s like for families for whom food stamps are a necessity. While some studies show as many as two-thirds of all Americans will, at some time, find it necessary to receive assistance from a government benefits program, we are not yet there.

As yet, we won’t have to feel what it’s like for those families who must make the choice to walk through the doors of a Department of Family Services office and ask for help. Having served as director of Wyoming DFS from 2003-2007, I know there are thousands of people who qualify for food stamps and whose families need that help, who choose not to apply because of the stigma they feel.

In our Lenten exercise, my wife and I won’t be exposed to the stigma that comes in the form of disdainful politicians and members of the public who, ignorant of the facts, level criticism at those who receive assistance. How often do you hear that these people should just get a job? The facts are that the majority of food stamp recipients are working. The problem is not their work ethic. The problem is that food stamps subsidize employers who pay low wages.

The media love to find an isolated case of abuse and publicize it though it doesn’t reflect the massive majority of recipients and the integrity of the program. One fraudster in Seattle who used food stamps to buy lobster became big news while millions are barely getting by quietly on their monthly allotment.

Neither will this be a “no end in sight” experience for us. Our Lenten experience is 40 days, while for those who need food stamps to feed their families, there is too often, no end in sight. Lent is symbolic of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert and being tempted in preparation for his ministry. Perhaps this is an experience necessary for the rest of us to prepare for our ministry, to teach us compassion, to rid ourselves of the stereotypes or at the very least to update those stereotypes.

The 40 days of Lent are a time of prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice. I confess, our “sacrifice” is minimal compared to the sacrifice being made daily by hardworking families who are paid so little in the jobs they work that they must rely on food stamps as a regular part of their monthly budget.

Food stamp guidelines indicate that as a family of two, my wife and I would be eligible to receive $347 per month in food assistance, down from $367 because of recent cuts. That amounts to a daily food budget of just under $5.60 each. The amount is higher than the average benefit and may not reflect what we would actually receive. That would depend on assets we hold such as the value of bank accounts, automobiles, etc.

Regardless, it is a starting point and one that will present a great challenge to people like us who are used to buying what we choose as we walk through super market aisles and eat out on a whim, too often oblivious to the struggle of others in the same aisles.

True, it is written that people “do not live by bread alone.” Neither do they live without it.

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