A Paycheck Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Go Hungry in America

Working full-time in America doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to feed your family.
Despite widespread enrollment in the federal food stamp program, nearly one in eight Americans still uses a Feeding America food bank. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
Mar 20, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Imagine this scenario, if you will: You’re a red-blooded, hard-working American, busting your buns for eight hours a day, every day. When you get home at night—your hands gritty and callused from a day’s work—you kick off your boots, put up your feet, and, instead of enjoying a well-earned steak, like your grandpa might have had back in his day, you go to bed hungry. Payday isn’t until tomorrow and you’ve gone through your last check in a couple of days, paying off your rent, car insurance, and electric bill.

Sound impossible? No hard-working American goes to bed hungry at night? If you believe the current political rhetoric surrounding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as Food Stamps, you’d probably say: “Yes, only the lazy and shiftless are in need of assistance.”

If that’s how you feel, consider this:

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If you worked 40 hours per week at this rate, every week, without a day off, that would equal just over $15,000 per year—or $1,256 per month. That puts you well within eligibility for food stamps in most states across America.

RELATED: Complete Coverage of America's Hidden Hunger Crisis

In Pennsylvania, for example, any individual earning $1,490 or less per month is considered poverty-stricken enough to qualify for food stamps.

“The stereotypes about who gets governmental help, in our experience, that’s not the reality,” says Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in America. “SNAP was created as a supplement for working people to help feed their families. The average monthly benefit is $134 a month. That works out to about $1.50 per meal. That’s hardly enough to live off of on its own.”

The simple fact is that many American jobs don’t pay people well enough to feed themselves and their families. The unemployment rate in America is just under eight percent, and yet one in seven Americans—more than 14 percent—currently live in poverty. According to data compiled by Feeding America, 83 percent of all SNAP benefits go to a household that has a child, senior citizen, or a disabled person. Forty-five percent of all SNAP recipients are children.

“The income threshold to qualify for food stamps for a family of four is $23,000 annually,” says Fraser. “The maid who makes your bed in the hotel when you’re out of town, the person who makes your coffee at McDonald’s, most of these people will qualify for food stamps.”

Even worse, despite the fact that SNAP benefits are being used by nearly one in seven Americans, people are still going hungry.

“We’re currently seeing a chronic use of food pantries,” says Fraser. “Once upon a time, we thought we would see poor people once in a while. Instead, people are showing up in droves because they’ve plum run out of food.”

Amidst this cycle of chronic hunger among working people, Congressional Republicans want to cut $135 billion from SNAP over the next decade. This could eliminate up to 13 million people from the program—by making income eligibility even more restrictive. This would of course punish the exact people Republicans claim to represent—hard-working Americans.

The cycle of hunger in America is simple math: Food stamps exist because poverty exists in America. Pay working people enough to feed themselves, and the government will no longer have to fill that role. Cut people off of SNAP without raising their wages, and Americans will go hungry in the streets.

More on America's Hidden Hunger Crisis from TakePart:

• This Restaurant Chain Doesn’t Mind Giving Away Its Food

• If You Are Not Hungry, Then No One in America Should Be Hungry

• How Can Someone Be Both ‘Stuffed and Starved’?