I Got Food Stamps and So Can You!

My recent excursion into the welfare system has left me scratching my head.  Prior to writing and researching this project, my only impression of food stamps and similar welfare programs was that the credit only worked for certain items at certain stores and that an individual had to be in a particularly dire financial situation to receive such aid.  I was wrong.

An EBT card works and looks like a debit card, but instead of the user withdrawing money from a checking account, the government prepays an amount of money it deems necessary for the user’s food expenditures.  Several of my classmates recently implemented the use of an EBT card for their groceries, and their involvement in the program immediately piqued my interest.  To be honest, my first thought was: “I wonder if I qualify for free grocery money.”  My immediate second thought was: “How do they qualify for free grocery money?”  These students come from similar financial backgrounds to mine, live in similar accomodations, and take the same amount of college credit hours that I do. Thus, my investigation began with a food stamp application, an interview request, and a trip to a place no one really wants to visit: the Department of Human Services.

I was informed by a very kind woman from the DHS that I would have to complete an interview to be considered for the program.  The next morning, I was surprised to see the long line of people that trailed outside.  When I reached the front of the line, I was informed that all of the interview spots were filled for the morning and that I’d have to call back later and complete my interview over the phone, which I did later that day.  To be considered, I needed to submit my last four paychecks, one rent receipt, one utility bill from the previous month, and verification that I was a student worker on campus.

I received a notice in the mail that the Department of Human Services had not received my employment verification and therefore could not review my case until I produced another pay receipt (which I could not produce, due to the fact that I’d only worked three weeks at my new job).  I had essentially given up at this point.  I didn’t need an EBT card; my investigation was merely an exercise in civic welfare accountability and efficiency.

Approximately one month after I had received the first letter, another letter found its way to my mailbox from the Department of Human Services.  I opened it up to find an EBT card with my name on it, instructions on how to activate and use the card, and the amount I could access on it per month — 200 dollars.  Nothing followed-up my interview, other than the evidently pointless letter I received during the previous month.   No one ever asked for a copy of my birth certificate or Social Security card, nor for my student identification card.  I answered all of their questions truthfully, but how were they to know that I was who I said I was?  Is it really this simple to obtain welfare benefits here in the United States?

It’s not hard to qualify for the program as a student and some universities even publicize food stamps to their students. For example, in Oregon, if you fall into any of the following categories, you automatically qualify for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) program: full-time student who works at least 20 hours per week, full-time single student who is caring for children younger than the age of 12, full-time married student who is caring for children younger than the age of 6, or at least a half-time student who is actively working any hours in a work-study program (institutional or federal) can receive a certain amount of money per month from the government.  While some of these requirements are certainly understandable, the last one leaves the door open for massive amounts of unnecessary welfare spending and fraud.

Welfare in America was intended to provide a temporary means of survival for those at rock bottom.  However, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people using food stamps over the past 40 years, and it would be hard to argue that they are all that destitute.  Over that same time period, an estimated $753 million per year has been spent fraudulently by welfare recipients.  Moreover, the government’s own accounting has cost taxpayers billions of dollars per year as food stamp programs routinely overpay their recipients; last year, that figure alone totaled $2.5 billion.

That being said, the students I know who use food stamps are hard-working, productive individuals whose parents won’t compensate them for the costs of college.  Mine generally don’t either, so I get that.  By using the program, students are able to save hundreds of dollars on food so they can pay for school instead of taking out an extra loan.  I’m not discrediting that logic; I totally sympathize.

But when government starts to act as the hand that feeds its people and makes personal decisions for them, citizens lose their identities and freedoms.  Not only is the innovative, hardworking, passionate American lost because the government promotes the idea that individuals can’t do it themselves, but the individuals come to expect the handouts and riot when they are revoked.

Given my own personal experience, it is clear that food stamps are too easy to obtain, student or not.  I realize that the food stamp program is different in all states, and some are more thorough with background checks than others, but much greater reform is needed.  It concerns me that 15% of the population, or 46 million people, rely on others’ tax dollars to pay for their food.  That doesn’t sound like freedom to me.

Yes, I apparently qualify for and possess an EBT card in the state of Tennessee, but I will not activate it.  Participating in a government welfare program simply because I can would amount to an endorsement of the growing entitlement society in America.  We should always advocate smaller government.  The decision to use food stamps for my food supply would directly contradict that principle, and our government’s purpose as it was described in the Federalist Papers and U.S. Constitution would be further distorted.

Sydney Phillips | Lee University | @sydphillips

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