The Food Stamp Economy and the Paucity of Virtue


Over the years that I have been working with individuals who are homeless and women in recovery I have learned a lot about the food stamp economy.  There are individuals who survive satisfactorily, in their current way of thinking, on the things they can buy with their monthly food stamp allotment, especially if multiple card holders are living under one roof and pooling their resources.   And, although the funds accessible through the EBT card are supposed to only be redeemable for food at authorized food outlets, they are used to barter for all kinds of things.

In my personal experience I have seen mothers who do not have custody of their children continue to claim the children and receive double or even triple the value of EBT funds for which they would otherwise have been eligible if they told the truth.   When they come into a program that is certified by the Department of Children and Families, like Titus 2, they have to apply under our certification and they are no longer able to misrepresent the status of their children, that is, if the program is honest and follows the rules, too.  The single adult allotment is $197 for such individuals with no custodial dependents and that is what they have to learn to manage as their food budget each month while at Titus 2, although Titus 2 provides all their non-food items like paper products, cleaning products, toiletries and hygiene needs and supplements the house’s food needs by purchasing items shared in common like coffee, sweetener, bread, etc.   

The EBT application requires income disclosure, but I have learned that many of the temporary and part time jobs available in a community like Bay County are “cash under the table” jobs performed by individuals like condo and house cleaning, construction, lawn service, babysitting or elder caregiving, painting and, of course, some jobs that one is not going to report anyway, like drug-dealing and prostitution. Most of these individuals do not have bank accounts so the funds are not traceable. And if there is no way to trace the cash, there is no sense of obligation to report the income.  I have observed for years that  a number of people have a lifestyle that does not seem to be sustainable with what I know of their employment or other legitimate sources of income, and yet it apparently is.

Such systems promote and foster dishonesty as a means of getting the most out of the system.  I have had this conversation with more than one young woman as I tried to discern her readiness for a Christian discipleship residential program.  Their funds, such as food stamps and other benefits received, are disclosed and managed by the administration of the recovery program and one’s access to the funds is controlled and allowed only for her needs while in the program. It is a constraint and boundary that some find unacceptable.  At Titus 2 the EBT cards are held in a secure safe and given out only for the grocery shopping trip each week.  Receipts are reviewed and the cards are put back in the safe afterwards.  No cash is allowed in the possession of the individual. 

I think the ultimate example of the food stamp economy occurred recently when I received a request for assistance from a young lady who was in jail.  She had a car that had been impounded and her belongings were scattered here and there.  Because of prior experience with her, I was not willing to accept her into Titus 2, as well as the fact that our beds were full.  I was willing to assist her with access to housing and other needs on an outpatient basis when she got out, however.  So when I talked to her during a jail visit she asked me to help her corral her belongings, get her car out of impound, and pay a fine so she could get out of jail.  She said, “As soon as I get out and you pick me up I can repay you.  I have (X amount) dollars on my food stamp card and I will give it to you.”  I said, “You do realize that is illegal, right?”  She looked at me with a quizzical look and said, “Everyone does it.  Even at (so and so program) they provided services that we needed and accepted our food stamps in return.”   I said, “Well, I don’t do that.”  Then she looked chagrined and maybe a little embarrassed.  We discussed other ways that she could work through her circumstances.

It was an eye opening experience for me.  I had heard women admit that they had used their EBT funds to purchase drugs (by giving the dealer the card to use up the balance, then simply reporting it lost a few days later and requesting a new one.)  They manage their card funds by phone and know precisely what day the funds are available.   At least one individual living on the street reported to me that he came to Florida from Alabama to live because the food stamp allotment in Florida is more than in Alabama. 

The proliferation of food stamp use and abuse is eroding our culture and enabling individuals to engage in lying, cheating, theft, and all sorts of other virtueless habits.  And while the opportunity for individuals to barter and abuse food stamps among themselves is significant, there are some merchants who collude in the abuse of the food stamps and astronomically compound the fraud, as this recent report reveals.

This is a sad state of affairs.  The lack of prosecution for individuals who engage in such abuse is well known and the practices continue to proliferate among those for whom it is a primary source of funding for whatever is needed or desired, not just food.  Drug dealers are predators who know this system well and entice women into abuse of the system, too. 

I know many families need the EBT benefits, but many who navigate around this and other systems at the fringe of society who have no compunction about the illegality of using them in other ways are sucking billions of dollars a  year out of the system intended to serve the most vulnerable among us….the children.  Many churches and civic groups now provide weekly food bags for weekend use by elementary-age children on school lunch programs.  Caregivers of many of those children are receiving food stamp benefits, but the children are not getting adequate food at home.  What are the benefits funding?  

This is but one way that our culture is fostering dependency and eroding virtue.   And there is little that I can do in the big scheme of things.  But I can work with one woman at the time to renew her way of thinking and help her get to a place of legitimate employment and principled living so that she can provide for herself and her children with self-respect and a work-ordered lifestyle.