SNAP "Challenges" Only Reveal Privileged Assumptions about Low-Income Families

by Inda Lauryn

SNAP “challenges” are nothing new. Every once in a while, we get a celebrity and/or politician who decides to rise up to the challenge and either prove or disprove how difficult it is to live on government assistance. Not surprisingly, Gwyneth Paltrow recently got press when she underwent the “challenge” for an entire week and tweeted a picture of her $29 food budget.

Before getting into everything wrong about this scenario, it should be noted that Paltrow did not last the entire week for her challenge. Her organic grains, beans and vegetables could not last her (and I am assuming her two children) the whole week. While for some this may highlight a problem in trying to survive on such a small budget, those of us who have experience with government assistance and poverty saw a slew of other problems with the “challenge” itself.

What people like Paltrow fail to understand is that poverty and public assistance mean much more than having such a limited budget for food. Living day to day in poverty means having to negotiate which of your basic needs you will take care of and what will have to wait. It means having to prove to others you are worthy of help and that you are actually poor enough to receive assistance, often meaning that if you have anything considered a luxury, you may be denied.

Then there are the problematic aspects Paltrow’s “challenge” brings to light. Her photo of only organic grains, beans and vegetables is an unrealistic diet for many poor people. Not only are organic foods more expensive, but many poor people live in food deserts and have no access to organic foods even if they were affordable. Furthermore, many people on public assistance are feeding children and the items in the photo, as Paltrow learned, are not enough to feed an entire family.

There was also no meat in Paltrow’s photo. In fact, it is difficult to see how Paltrow could make a complete meal with her grains and vegetables, much less season it or otherwise supplement it so that she gets all the nutrients she needs. As many vegans and vegetarians know, they are often questioned about sources of protein, which may be available through other sources, but there seemed to be none in Paltrow’s diet. Apparently, she planned to go without this very important nutrient or was unaware it was missing.

Interestingly, the lack of necessary nutrients is definitely a problem the poor face, but it seems unlikely that Paltrow thought of this, which brings up another problem with her “challenge.” People in privileged positions with seemingly unlimited resources find it easy to grandstand about what economically disadvantaged people can and cannot afford. One of the most irritating aspects about the privileged deciding to slum it for a limited amount of time is that they have completely unrealistic expectations about what it means to be poor.

For instance, since many poor people live in food deserts, they must find some way to get to affordable grocery stores. This means finding transportation, often public transportation, that overlaps with store hours and non-work hours. It means often having to negotiate heavy bags on a bus when a car is not available and a bike is impossible. It also means having to become an expert at clipping coupons and checking around with several stores in order to find the most affordable prices. This, of course, takes time in addition to the mental tax it takes to become an expert in stretching a limited budget.

Furthermore, what about necessities beyond food? When privileged people undergo SNAP challenges, they only have to worry about food. They do not have to worry about stretching out funds to cover utility bills, phone bills, clothing, gas, and other expenses for household maintenance—or, heaven forbid, emergencies. Some people may opt to sell their benefits, illegal but usually necessary, in cases in which cash is desperately needed to cover these things.

Through all this, poor people must deal with a constant animosity that leads many to believe that those who receive public assistance are lazy ne’er-do-well-ers defrauding hard-working taxpayers when nothing is further from the truth. An honest assessment shows that this animosity comes from the popular perception that most welfare recipients are black women with multiple children from different fathers. In truth, not only are most welfare recipients white, but they are also children.

The Reagan administration’s construction of the welfare queen successfully erased a history that intentionally excluded Black Americans from receiving government assistance. Associating it with blackness has made public assistance the scourge of government spending, instead of the military and its inflated budget, which eclipses programs such as social security and SNAP combined. It has made it easy for those who do not receive assistance or believe they never will to think that poor people do not deserve any extras, especially items one may consider luxuries.

Interestingly, even certain foods are seen as luxuries. Recently, Missouri Republicans began with efforts to prevent SNAP recipients from buying “luxury” food items such as steak and seafood. Apparently, people who receive government assistance are abusing the system when they buy “luxury” foods. Such policing simply reinforces the belief that even certain foods are the sole property of the well off and that the poor do not deserve such luxuries by merit of being poor.

Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that we should have a say in how poor people spend their money as if they are in poverty simply because of an inability to make sensible decisions themselves. Such thinking ignores that poverty and racism are built-in features of capitalism. Its design makes it most likely that black women are poor but blamed for their own poverty no matter their circumstances.

When we remember that most people who receive government assistance actually do have jobs, we must remember that this includes black women as well. Just because we see a black woman with nice things, it does not mean that she does not have struggles with poverty and does not deserve the nice things she has. We certainly do not know the circumstances under which she acquired them, so there should be no assumption that she is a welfare queen scamming the system. Poor people do receive gifts, some buy knockoffs and some wait for clearance sales in order to acquire some of the nice things they receive.

Paltrow’s SNAP challenge is infuriating on so many levels but mostly because this latest challenge reminds us just how out of touch those with privilege are to the realities of living in poverty. A life of poverty should not condemn anyone to the a life of never knowing any of the pleasures and joys that help us escape a difficult life. Instead of judging the poor and taking on empty challenges to show how it “really” is, how about we listen instead?

Photo: Twitter

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press and shares music playlists at MixCloud.

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