Natalie Hickman, a 23-year-old resident of Baltimore City, makes $8 an hour working at a McDonald's located in BWI Airport. Only afforded four hours of work a day, Hickman spends as much time commuting to and from her job on public transportation as she does working her shift. She makes less than $480 a month. She receives a food stamps benefit of $347 per month to feed herself and her six-month-old daughter.
How far does that monthly benefit stretch? "It never lasts," says Hickman.
For many Baltimore City residents like Hickman, food stamps provide a vital if inadequate supplement to their monthly income. While economists have found that food stamps do effectively pull people out of poverty, they have also found that the benefits often do not last the month, an indictment of not only how unreasonably low the official poverty line is, but of how inaccurate common perceptions of poverty are.
In Baltimore City, 208,000 people receive food stamp benefits, a figure encompassing all members of a household, according to Brian Schleter, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service reports that only 58 percent of eligible working-poor in Maryland participated in the program in 2011, the last year for which figures are available. Participation is defined as receiving benefits, without specifying whether people remained in the program throughout their period of eligibility. In fiscal year 2013, the average monthly benefit in Maryland was $127.39 a month per person.
The federal government, not the Department Of Social Services, a state agency, establishes benefit levels and income requirements.
The USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has estimated that, for a woman between the ages of 19 and 50, a thrifty food plan – the least expensive food plan that still meets minimum nutritional requirements – will cost an average of $37.90 a week. Maryland's monthly average benefit of $127.39 will not last four weeks at that thrifty spending level. For men between the ages of 19 and 50, a thrifty food plan costs $42.60 a week. For such an individual, Maryland's monthly average benefit would only last three weeks.
According to Ross Fraser, a spokesperson for Feeding America, a not-for-profit fighting hunger in the United States, food stamp recipients currently survive on an average of $1.40 per meal. Fraser believes if Americans had a better understanding of how food stamps recipients live, the public discussion about the program would be very different.
For Dr. Robert Moffitt, Krieger-Eisenhower professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on social welfare programs, the biggest misunderstanding about food stamps is that "it's just not that much money and people simply need more help than that."
It was the last week of March when Hickman spoke to the AFRO. In her refrigerator, "three TV dinners, one pot pie, a Salisbury steak dinner, some salad, some salad dressing, some condiments, some milk . . . canned food, bread, and that's all." Hickman wishes she could afford something like crab leg or steak on occasion. In her life, she has never had either.
Though her benefits do not last the month, she feels constantly at risk of having her benefits reduced by social services. "They say I make too much at work, and I don't," said Hickman. "I make nothing."