October 13, 2016

Outrageous SNAP Stories - By Design

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In 1974, the Chicago Tribune revealed the crimes of Linda Taylor, who they dubbed the “welfare queen” for employing a complex series of fraudulent identities to scam $150,000 in government benefits she spent on fur coats & Cadillacs. Forty years later, Fox News popularized the tale of Jason Greenslate, who they presented as “a surfing, lobster-eating food stamp recipient” who gleefully gobbled sushi that he charged to his EBT card in between band practice & strip club outings because “[SNAP is] free food; it’s awesome.” 

These stories are outrageous – by design. 

I do not mean to suggest that Linda & Jason are not real people, or that one should not be angry at them for gaming the system. Still, they are monumentally awful outliers, which can be easily proven by looking at the United States Department of Agriculture’s SNAP numbers – payment accuracy is 96.2%, and only 1.3% of benefits were trafficked for cash.

So why do they get all the ink? As the old saying goes, “If a dog bites a man, it’s not news, but if a man bites a dog, you’ve got a story.” Unfortunately, “SNAP Helps Disabled Senior Afford Groceries” breaks neither skin nor headlines.

The problem is that while hunger is a monumental injustice in our country – more than one in eight Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from – it remains a largely invisible one. For the seven in eight Americans who don’t live with that struggle, the image of a life on SNAP is largely, if not totally, informed by media representation. In a world with more information available than ever before, our brains are hard-wired to seek out only that which reinforces what we already feel we “know”. Once the image of a SNAP recipient becomes linked with a criminal mastermind or some dude with a surfboard, it can be hard to dislodge.

When advocating for something as abstract as expanding government aid, personal experiences have real power to counteract outrageous figures. While I have never received SNAP assistance, there was a time when I would have qualified and it would have helped. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I hoped a star would be born. Instead, I labored at a theater for minimum wage. I quickly burned through my savings in the struggle to juggle bills. I had to pay my rent; I had to pay for my car. But I figured I didn’t have to pay for food every day. Right? While I looked for a better job, I cut corners as often as I could, which found me stuffing my mouth full of popcorn for lunch and sneaking unsold pretzels due for the dumpster at the end of the day. Thankfully, I started working at MAZON shortly thereafter, and while even at my worst I had it better than some (at least I had a job), I carry this bit of myself when I advocate for those in need.

It is with this heart that I express my gratitude to my colleagues for all their work to launch This Is Hunger, a traveling exhibit bringing personal stories of hunger, poverty & relief to communities all across the country. We’ve invited individuals of all backgrounds to speak to you about their experiences via a virtual table, the same way we’ve come together with our family, friends & neighbors for generations. There’s a flood of negative representation of those living in the margins; we hope you’ll join us to help counteract this and lend your voice in the fight against hunger.