The Problem with Food-Stamp Challenges

Politicians and celebrities are trying to live for one week on food stamps, but will this increase advocacy for the poor?

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

A person displays a federal food stamps card on February 10, 2011, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As the outcome of a debate he had with a Twitter follower, Newark Mayor Cory Booker says he will spend December 4 through 11 trying to live on food stamps. Should he follow through, Mayor Booker will be part of a rapidly growing group. In the last six months, mayors in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Phoenix have also spent a week living on food stamps, as have the governors of Oregon and Colorado. And politicians are not the only ones participating in such experiments. A few months ago, celebrity chef Mario Batali successfully completed a food stamp challenge with his family, and there is a program at the University of Bridgeport that in a few weeks will invite students on the campus to do the same.

There are even groups around the country that help organize community participation in similar efforts. One such group, The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, hosts a blog where people post their experiences. Some happily share the news about how their week-long experience with food stamps led to long-desired weight loss. However, most everyone from celebrities to politicians to regular people agree about how impossibly hard it is to eat healthfully, or even consistently escape hunger, on so little food.

(MORE: One Nation on Welfare: Living Your Life on the Dole)

These experiments are designed to make politicians and the general public more sensitive to the difficulties of living on $4.00 per day, the amount that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides to the almost 46 million people who currently receive benefits. But is it really any surprise how difficult that would be? Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class or famous can live on $4.00 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most. In the meantime, there is very little public conversation—or legislation—about actually raising the dollar amount for SNAP recipients.

Perhaps this is because, according to a Pew Research Center Survey conducted in April, Americans are deeply ambivalent about the role that government should play in helping the poor. In the Pew poll, 59% of respondents said that the government should provide food and housing to all citizens, but a whopping 71% thought the poor have become too dependent on such assistance, while 52% said we should forgo increased support to the poor if it will increase the deficit.

(MORE: Who Wants to Play the ‘Food Stamp Challenge’?)

In 2011, more Americans said they struggled to afford food more than in any other year since the financial crisis, according to a recent report from the Food Research and Action Center, and earlier this year one in five people surveyed in a Gallup Poll said that they could not always afford to feed their entire family. These are real people who have to negotiate too little food month after month, year after year — not just for one week. According to the National Poverty Center, between 1996 and 2011, SNAP reduced the number of extremely poor children in the United States by nearly 50%. The number of extremely poor households also saw a huge drop, falling to about 800,000 from 1.46 million. An increase in the amount of support offered by the SNAP program would have an even larger impact.

Painter Pablo Picasso once said, “I like to live poor, only with a lot money.” Those who have taken up the SNAP challenge and chronicled their experiences all say that they were tired, couldn’t focus, and were distracted by hunger. Once their week was over, their lives got right back to normal. We can only hope that Cory Booker and others who take up such experiments will become advocates to help raise others out of poverty and not just spend a week walking in their shoes.

MORE: Below the Poverty Line