The “New Poor,” Food Stamps and How We Think

March 19th, 2010 § 3 comments

Hey Amber,

I stumbled across a few articles (thanks to friends) on the current use of “food stamps” (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program debit cards). First, we have the article on hipsters using food stamps – 20- to 30- something college graduates using their cards at local farmers markets and organic stores. Next, we have a hipster defending his use of food stamps and arguing that those reacting negatively assume that all hipsters are white and wealthy (which of course is so layered). Finally, the NY Times reports on the increase of use and the decrease of stigma. This decrease in stigma seems to be by those who never dreamed that they’d use food stamps and find themselves needing to do so, despite “working hard.”

And girl, it is so deep.

I don’t even know where to begin. My mind exploded as I read. What did I think about all this? What did I think about the comments written, many of them angry accusations of wasting tax payers’ money (in the case of the hipsters)? And then there’s the stigma (is it really decreasing?)…deep…..

So I’m going to try to make my thoughts as coherent as possible.  Each of these points could be entire essays on their own, but I’ll try to be brief. I’ll try.

1. “And in cities that are magnets for 20- and 30-something creatives and young professionals, the kinds of food markets that specialize in delectables like artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef have seen significant upticks in food stamp payments among their typical shoppers.” (

A question: does the use of food stamps for organic and local foods indicate that these “hipsters” are using government assistance in order to maintain a lifestyle? Many commenters seem to think so, and others argue that they can use the cards however they want to.  We’re actually given little information about them, in particular what kind of family support they have, but it does make me think about people’s expectations. We expect certain things from those who use government assistance.  Buy the cheapest rather than the best food.  If you’re poor, live like it. Please fit into our framework.

One commenter wrote, “Having just finished teaching underprivileged elementary kids the difference between “wants” and “needs”, I am now wondering if my lesson was administered to the wrong demographic.”  I wonder about this lesson – what are the implications of emphasizing the difference between wants and needs, and that some people can freely satisfy their wants while others would be ridiculed to do so?

Now, I understand that some of the reaction is towards hipster culture.  As once a camp counselor for many well-off kids, I always found it amusing when they pulled out their lunchboxes filled with organic foods. Or when asked what their favorite fruit was, they answered “kumquat” (to which I thought, what the hell is a kumquat?).  For many people, these foods are symbols of privilege. This takes me to my next thought….

2. What about access? I belong to an organization on the South Side of Chicago, SOUL, and we have recently been pushing the city to have city-run farmers markets accept LINK cards (food stamps). Why? Because it increases access to fresh fruits and vegetables and supports local farmers. The accessibility these hipsters have to farmers markets and stores like Whole Foods demonstrates the HUGE issue of food deserts. I think it’s telling (and good) that they are able to buy healthy foods, but equally important is the ease in going to places where healthy foods are offered. Where are these markets located? I have no idea where the closest Whole Foods is to me…somewhere far far away.

3. “Like many new beneficiaries here, Mr. Dawson argues that people often abuse the program and is quick to say he is different. (NY Times)

And the welfare image persists….”I’m not like those other people!” Well, neither are they. They aren’t like those images imprinted on your brain that tell you that you’re different. You work hard, but other people don’t, right? Wrong. And how do perceptions such as these demonstrate that the stigma is decreasing? Continue reading…

4. Having assumed that poor people clamored for aid, she was surprised to find that some needed convincing to apply.“I come here and I see people who are knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed,” she said. “These are people I could be having lunch with.”

That could describe Franny and Shawn Wardlow, whose house in nearby Oregonia conjures middle-American stability rather than the struggle to meet basic needs. Their three daughters have heads of neat blond hair, pink bedroom curtains and a turtle bought in better times on vacation in Daytona Beach, Fla. One wrote a fourth-grade story about her parents that concluded “They lived happily ever after.” (NY Times)

And here come the adorable blond children. Aren’t they cute? Look how the stigma is decreasing – white people use food stamps too (even though they always have). It seems that the stigma is still there for all the same people it was before – maybe just not for those who conjure up “middle-American stability.”  Problematic, anyone? 

Instead of decreasing the stigma – perpetuated by stereotypes of poor people of color in inner-cities and “white trash” – it’s suggesting that middle class families who find themselves in need of assistance are examples of the “deserving” poor.  In my opinion, this is the same stigma in new clothes.

Whew. Let me stop there and catch my breath. Like I said, it’s deep. And so much is going on in these articles. My thoughts are fallin all over themselves. What do you think?

§ 3 Responses to The “New Poor,” Food Stamps and How We Think"

  • Anonymous says:

    i like this post.

    'having assumed that poor people clamored for aid, she was surprised to find that some needed convincing to apply.“I come here and I see people who are knowledgeable, normal, well-spoken, well-dressed,” she said. “These are people I could be having lunch with.”'

    but on the real- my clients make HELLA more money than me, or if not a little more than me per month, and get food stamps- ALL of them.

    im not a hipster (well, everyone in the heights thinks i am, lol), but mad times ive been like “i should get food stamps too instead of taking out loans to eat”
    but that's my personal opinion- if the “deserving” poor can get food stamps, so should broke ass students.

  • tomi says:

    You raise up a lot of good points. I took a class fall quarter about women in low wage jobs and we talked briefly about welfare and all the connotations just surrounding the word itself. And also how social security is technically part of the welfare system that FDR put into place, yet its only really TANF (temporary assistance for needy families) that gets the bad rep.

  • Joanna says:

    Hey! So after reading you and Amber's last posts I say you should both become social workers. This is the kind of stuff we talk about all the time. Food for thought. :)

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