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$672 a month gets little help from food stamps


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By Mike Stuckey

Senior news editor

msnbc.com

updated 9:56 a.m. ET, Tues., Nov. 25, 2008

From the living room of her tiny apartment on the 10th floor of the Minnie Riperton building for senior citizens on Chicago’s South Side, Adell Davis can see all the way to Lake Michigan. For that, she is truly grateful.

But she can also see the clock. And that inspires darker emotions as she uses it to space two daily meals, often just rice and toast.

“I get up in the morning at 5 o’clock. I fix coffee and watch the news,” said Davis. “Around 9 or 10, I’ll start fixing something to eat. About 12 o’clock, that’s lunch, but I can’t eat at 12. If I eat at 12 o’clock, I’m going to be hungry at 3 or 4 again anyway. So I’ll wait until 3, and I’ll just be hungry for three hours. Then I can have a little something. Nine, 10 o’clock at night, I have nothing to eat so I drink some water. And I always make sure I have coffee and sugar because that helps a lot.”

Until recently, Davis, 63, hobbled by a pair of bum knees that she got from years as a letter carrier, had a little more food around the house because she was eligible for a monthly allotment of $168 in food stamps. But when she moved into subsidized housing and her rent dropped dramatically, she lost virtually all of those benefits.

To many Americans, the food-stamp program is often little more than part of the entitlement debate between social-justice advocates and foes of big government. But to a record number of Americans — 29.5 million at last count and growing with the unemployment and foreclosure rates — the nation’s largest domestic food assistance program is the difference between the misery of hunger and a manageable life.

Adell Davis is a living, breathing example of how poor one must be in these United States to receive help through the program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service: With her Social Security income of just $672 a month, Davis now qualifies for less than $20 a month in food stamps, which she declines as more trouble than it’s worth and because “I thought somebody else could use it better than me.”

In turning down the benefits, Davis joined many other older Americans who also are eligible for some assistance from the food-stamp program but simply don’t apply for it. That’s a segment of the population especially targeted for assistance in these hard times by groups like Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks.

Barriers to benefits

Maura Daly, Feeding America’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, said that as vital as the food-stamp program is to combating hunger, it has many barriers. Overall, just 67 percent of eligible recipients get food stamps, according to the USDA. Most who don’t simply aren’t aware that they are eligible, Daly said. Others “don’t feel like the benefit is worth going through the process.”

Still more are plagued by “inaccessible offices,” Daly said, and a trend in some states to push more of the application process online, which is unhelpful to poor people without computer access. USDA spokeswoman Adriana Zorrilla added that “some people may also face transportation or language barriers.”

And then there is the stigma often attached to receiving food-stamps, Daly and Zorrilla said, some of which comes from the public’s misperceptions about who is eligible to receive the benefits and who actually gets them.

The 44-year-old food-stamp program, which was revised Oct. 1 and renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in part to fight the stigma, has strict eligibility criteria. Benefits are intended to go only to households with net incomes at or below the federal poverty level, which ranges from $10,404 a year for single person to $35,604 for a family of eight. Income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

A household generally cannot have more than $2,000 in “countable resources,” which includes cash and investments but excludes residences and some vehicles.

USDA statistics paint a stark picture of the financial status of food stamp recipients. Thirty-nine percent of households in the program have income of half or less of the poverty figure, while 15 percent have no cash income at all. Nearly half of recipients are children. Just 15 percent are working-age men. Only 5 percent receive general state welfare benefits. Seventy percent of households in the program have no “countable resources” and the average has just $143.

Average monthly benefit: $95 a person

A household’s food-stamp benefit, which now comes in debit-card form, is calculated based on number of members, income and certain expenses. The maximum amount is $176 for a single person, $588 for a family of four and $1,058 for a family of eight. The minimum monthly benefit is $14. Nationwide, the average monthly benefit per person is $95. But the median U.S. household spends nearly twice that on food per person — $184 a month.

The program is not without problems typical of many entitlement programs and bureaucracies. The USDA says that fraudulent claims account for “less than 2 percent” of overall benefits, but that is still about $600 million a year. Administrative costs are high — more than 21 percent of total federal and state funding in 2007 — and they vary wildly from state to state. For instance, South Carolina spent $169 per household in 2007 on administrative expenses while California spent $1,169, a whopping 38 percent of the average $3,106 annual household benefit. The USDA is just beginning to examine the reasons for the disparities.

Feeding America’s Daly expects the record number of recipients will swell as the economy worsens. Despite all the attention that dwindling 401(k) accounts and plummeting real estate prices are getting, “It’s really the poor and the near poor who are least able to cope with economic changes,” she said. “We have millions of Americans already living one disaster away from hunger.”

She points to a recent acceleration in applications to the program: a 6 percent surge since the start of the year, a 10 percent leap from August 2007 to August 2008. Another increase is expected when September numbers are released in two weeks.

Anti-hunger activists are heartened by the campaign pledge of President-elect Barack Obama, who once trod the streets of Adell Davis’ Chicago neighborhood as a community organizer, to end childhood hunger by 2015. They emphasize that the food-stamp program is a direct economic stimulus with each dollar of benefits generating nearly twice that much of a return to local economies, as the money spent at grocery stores helps pay salaries of everyone from clerks and truckers to farmers.

For many of those whose finances have deteriorated sharply due to the economy, the activists say, help can’t come soon enough.

Food banks feel growing pressure

“Food prices have dramatically risen … millions more people are having a hard time making ends meet,” Daly said, noting that Feed America’s member food banks have reported an average 20 percent increase in demand.

Davis said food banks and relatives keep her from starving, because once she gets her Social Security check, “after rent, phone and lights, I usually end up with $200 a month. Basically, by the second week of the month, I’m flat broke. When I was getting food stamps, I was able to last maybe until the last week of the month.

“Some of the food pantries are really, really good and they give you enough food to have balanced meals for a week or two,” she said. At one near her apartment, “They have name brands. You always get some fresh vegetables. They always have salad. You get some nice stuff. I have some gourmet salad dressing up there. If it wasn’t for the church and the food pantries, there would be a lot of hungry people and the morgue would be full. There would be a lot more crime.”

Davis helps stretch the donations by frequently eating meals with her mother, brother and three daughters, all successful businesswomen who are the pride of her life. Raising them as a single mom, Davis relied at times on food stamps and focused on making sure they got a good education. Now, “They would never apply for food stamps, they will just make it on their own,” she said. “I am so proud of that.”

So Davis is not starving, but like many people who have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, a lot of her thoughts revolve around food.

“I can’t remember the last time I had bacon and eggs at my house. I cannot afford bacon, I cannot afford eggs. I haven’t had an orange or a piece of fruit in years. I … eat meat maybe three times a week,” almost always chicken.

Silver-haired and quick to laugh and smile, Davis wants to clear up one misconception about food-stamp recipients: They are not whiners. “I’m not complaining. I’m not in a dirt blanket. It’s not anybody’s responsibility or anybody’s fault that I’m in this situation. … I walk into my apartment and say, ‘Thank you, God, thank you, God,’ for having my own place.”

'Give us enough to eat'

But if she could give the powers that be a suggestion to improve the food-stamp program, it would be to loosen eligibility requirements and increase benefits. “Give us enough to eat off of for the whole month and stop penalizing us and looking over our shoulders and asking us, ‘Do you eat with anybody? Is anybody giving you anything?’ It’s a very depressing thing when you go in there and they want to know your life history.”

With her $672 monthly income the equivalent of a car payment or a night out for many of the Wall Street bankers whose livelihoods were saved by the recent $700 billion bailout by the federal government, that begs a question. “Since the government is giving away all this other money, why can’t they give us enough to eat for a month, especially the seniors and the poor people?” Davis asks.

“They’re not helping us to live. All we are doing is barely surviving.”

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27827700/

I am glad my mom doesn't have to live like that. I hope I don't have to either.

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and this leech pays a power bill too?!? RIDICULOUS!! like a little queen in her castle with all that fancy electricity and coffee and telephone service!

seriously, yall are some heartless bastids. i wanna buy this old lady some groceries.

Coffee, telephone, and cable are ALL not necessities of life.

Give her groceries and she will expect far more in the future...

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Coffee, telephone, and cable are ALL not necessities of life.

Give her groceries and she will expect far more in the future...

where's it say cable in the article? i missed that.

electricity, a roof over your head, clothes- none are actual necessities of life. this old lady could beg on the streets and sleep in a box and wear newspapers and eat out of a dumpster, technically.

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where's it say cable in the article? i missed that.

electricity, a roof over your head, clothes- none are actual necessities of life. this old lady could beg on the streets and sleep in a box and wear newspapers and eat out of a dumpster, technically.

I am sure she has cable. She has a television and watches the news. I am sure she has cable especially since she has a telephone. ****, it is probably a cell phone.

...and she would be saving $672 a month... So what is your point?

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my point is i don't want to live in a 3rd-world country even if i'm the 1% on top. i don't want poor old grandma begging on the streets. and to pre-empt your next post: sure, she should've saved money and got a better education and job and blah blah blah. but she didn't.

If poor old grandma had invested well and saved money, she wouldn't be in this position. She is responsible for her current position and she alone should provide for herself without assistance from anyone else. She could go and get a job now. What is stopping her from having a desk job where she doesn't have to use her 'bum knees?'

Why should her life be subsidized because she didn't take care of her own ****?

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My complaints about Adell Davis:

-Coffee is a privilege. She doesn't need coffee every morning.

-She doesn't need cable television.

-Sugar is another luxury.

-Having a phone is privilege.

I have no sympathy...

Just so we're clear, and right up front: I think you're a total prick if you actually think and believe what you are saying in this thread.

To me it's a quality of life thing. Technically, you don't need any of that stuff either. We could break all of your limbs, put you into a coma, and feed you through a tube and you'd still have everything you need to live, right? How's that sound for a quality of life? I'm not comparing the 2 things, I'm trying to get you to think. Should this woman just off herself, then? And if she does, how does that benefit you and society directly?

I didn't see anything about cable television either. We have (or had) at least one poster on this board who watches the Falcons games on a tv w/rabbit ears, because he has mouths to feed and doesn't get much, if any, help from this program. Government is not doing jack **** to help people out there who are struggling anyway. It is the private charities - the food banks, the churches and the like - who are making differences in people's lives, and I thank and praise God for them every day.

Btw, aside from the injuries it says she sustained working over her lifetime, you have no idea what other life circumstances, that truly were out of her control, may have put her into this situation. But way to be a judgmental *******. I have a hard time praying for people like you, but I will anyway - that you get your eyes opened in a very real and personal way.

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and this leech pays a power bill too?!? RIDICULOUS!! like a little queen in her castle with all that fancy electricity and coffee and telephone service!

seriously, yall are some heartless bastids. i wanna buy this old lady some groceries.

And I want to phase out social security so history doesn't continue to repeat itself...

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And I want to phase out social security so history doesn't continue to repeat itself...

That is fine with me too, if they give me ALL of the money I've put into it at this point, and take into consideration what that amount would have been (instead of what it actually is) if I had been given the opportunity to invest it in an average performing mutual fund over the course of the time I paid into it. That's fair.

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That is fine with me too, if they give me ALL of the money I've put into it at this point, and take into consideration what that amount would have been (instead of what it actually is) if I had been given the opportunity to invest it in an average performing mutual fund over the course of the time I paid into it. That's fair.

At 36, I'd be happy if I just didn't have to pay into it anymore and they let me invest it myself. They can keep what I've paid in...

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Just so we're clear, and right up front: I think you're a total prick if you actually think and believe what you are saying in this thread.

To me it's a quality of life thing. Technically, you don't need any of that stuff either. We could break all of your limbs, put you into a coma, and feed you through a tube and you'd still have everything you need to live, right? How's that sound for a quality of life? I'm not comparing the 2 things, I'm trying to get you to think. Should this woman just off herself, then? And if she does, how does that benefit you and society directly?

I didn't see anything about cable television either. We have (or had) at least one poster on this board who watches the Falcons games on a tv w/rabbit ears, because he has mouths to feed and doesn't get much, if any, help from this program. Government is not doing jack **** to help people out there who are struggling anyway. It is the private charities - the food banks, the churches and the like - who are making differences in people's lives, and I thank and praise God for them every day.

Btw, aside from the injuries it says she sustained working over her lifetime, you have no idea what other life circumstances, that truly were out of her control, may have put her into this situation. But way to be a judgmental *******. I have a hard time praying for people like you, but I will anyway - that you get your eyes opened in a very real and personal way.

You should worry about providing for yourself before you worry about raising your standard of living. She is a burden to society and has no reason to complain about struggling to get by when she has luxuries every day in her life. It's like the soccer mom who goes to Starbucks to get a latte and then complains because gasoline is $3.50 a gallon. Give me a break.

The woman should take care of herself and not be a burden to society because she contributes nothing to the betterment of society. It is her fault, and her's alone, that she is in the financial shape that she is in now. NO ONE should have to subsidize her standard of living or quality of life because she didn't properly prepare for her "retirement."

Why should the government do things to help people that are struggling? This lady got in her position because of her own faults and ****** planning. The government aka taxpayers should not pay for her mistakes. She, and she alone, lives and/or dies by her choices.

If churches, non-profit groups, privately funded food banks, etc. want to help this lady and others like her out, all the blessings to them, but no one should pay to sustain her quality of life or standard of living especially when she has luxuries of life that she could give up.

I have my eyes wide open and realize that life is not fair, but your life should not be subsized by other people especially if you got to that position through your own negligence. You can do whatever you want in life if you are willing to sacrifice certain aspects of 'qualities of life' to get there.

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That is fine with me too, if they give me ALL of the money I've put into it at this point, and take into consideration what that amount would have been (instead of what it actually is) if I had been given the opportunity to invest it in an average performing mutual fund over the course of the time I paid into it. That's fair.

...or the government keeps it to pay for your social welfare programs...

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Reading this thread reminds me why I really hate republicans.

I'm just amazed at how self-righteous these guys sound.

Everybody on food stamps didn't wake up one day and say: "You know, that Food Stamps Program sounds like a good deal.

I think I'll be poor so I can cash in on that $100.00 a month" :rolleyes:

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If you feel that it is necessary to subsidize the standard of living of the burdens to society, then notify the federal government and you can pay my share and your share...

Standard of living? How about survival? I have no problem with someone like the woman in the article getting help.She worked 20 years as a mail lady.

What I don't like are people I see in my apartment complex. I have this guy that lives above me. He gets welfare, and food stamps. He is only 23 years old. Yet he drives a 2004 Chevy Suburban with 24 inch rims. He is always sitting outside with a 40 ounce of beer and smoking cigarettes. Nice to know where his welfare check goes.

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