Forty Days of SNAP

Our family's Lenten food stamp challenge

“I wish I got paid enough to afford Girl Scout cookies”

…said the Raley’s employee when our Brownies tried to sell him cookies at a site sale a few weeks ago. He smiled, then coupled on several more grocery carts to the one he’d wheeled in from the parking lot, and clatter-squeaked back into the store.

“Oh. Hmm,” the girls nodded. Then, remembering their coached response they called to his red-vested back, “Thanks anyway!”

I’m not about to rant about how low-wage workers should be able to afford Girl Scout cookies. Cookies are a Sometimes Food, after all, not something we need for survival. You can buy cookies at the store with SNAP benefits but not Girl Scout cookies. So for the purposes of our Lenten discipline, our stash stays in the freezer until the next Sunday rolls around (we are observing Sundays as feast days in Lent).

Thin Mint cookie wearing Girl Scout sash

Thin Mints tempt us from inside the freezer.

Still, the Raley’s cart-retriever struck a nerve. He may not actually be living in poverty or even approaching 130% of the poverty line–at which point he’d be eligible for SNAP–but many workers do. Why is that? Isn’t work supposed to be your ticket out of poverty and off of government benefits?

In fact, SNAP is designed to support income earned from work, and the numbers suggest that it is not a disincentive to work. Still, wouldn’t it be great if all workers could dedicate 30 percent of their earned income to food and didn’t need government assistance?

When Jesus sends his disciples out to spread the good news by healing the sick and raising the dead, he challenges them to take nothing with them beyond what they need for a single day. They will be cared for by those they serve, “for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:10). Jesus speaks not just what should be true for his disciples, but what should be true for all workers.

The 21st century expression of this truth is, as President Obama has said, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty. To that I add “no one who would like to work full time but instead has to cobble together multiple part time jobs with no benefits.” Not as good a sound bite, but there it is. For a quick overview showing how SNAP benefits pair with low-wage work, see the table below, taken from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Example: Calculating a Household’s Monthly SNAP Benefits

Consider a family of three with one full-time, minimum wage worker, two children, dependent care costs of $74 a month, and shelter costs of $818 per month.

  • Step 1 — Gross Income: The federal minimum wage for 2013 is $7.25 per hour. Full-time work at this level yields monthly earnings of $1,256.
  • Step 2 — Net Income for Shelter Deduction: Begin with the gross monthly earnings of $1,256. Subtract the standard deduction for a three-person household ($149), the earnings deduction (20 percent times $1,256, or $251), and the childcare deduction ($74). The result is $783 (Countable Income A).
  • Step 3 — Shelter Deduction: Begin with the shelter costs of $818. Subtract half of Countable Income A (half of $783 is $392) for a result of $426.
  • Step 4 — Net Income: Subtract the shelter deduction ($426) from Countable Income A ($783) for a result of $357.
  • Step 5 — Family’s Expected Contribution Towards Food: 30 percent of the household’s net income ($357) is $107.
  • Step 6 — SNAP Benefit: The maximum benefit in 2013 for a family of three is $526. The maximum benefit minus the household contribution ($526 minus $107) equals $419.

The family’s monthly SNAP benefit is $419.

Maybe by the time our Brownies finish their badges this year, they will have a little more awareness about money and what it can buy, and needs vs. wants, particularly regarding food. If we can get it together, I’d like to take the troop on a backyard fruit harvest, where they’ll be helping people who not only can’t buy Girl Scout cookies, but maybe can’t even afford fruit. Then they can puzzle over yet another aspect of the food and money equation.

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