Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

The Myth of “The Undeserving Poor”

How long will politicians use welfare and food stamps recipients as budgetary punching bags? For as long as we let them. The latest in this year’s scapegoating of the poor comes from Maine, where embattled Governor Paul LePage is threatening to cut his state’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP,” the new name for “food stamps”) because the Department of Agriculture refuses to ban the purchase of certain items from the program. “I can think of only one reason the federal government would refuse to eliminate junk food from the [SNAP] menu,” said LePage, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “special interests.”  LePage isn’t alone in his quest to ensure Americans in poverty are without small pleasures like birthday cake.

A selection of "anti-impoverished" headlines from this year

A selection of “anti-impoverished” headlines from this year


A New York lawmaker wants to prevent people from buying steak and lobster with their SNAP benefits, a concern that appears to be more rooted in myth than reality. Missouri has floated similar restrictions intended to “reduce the luster” of receiving benefits meant to soften the blow of poverty.

The Department of Agriculture’s position has been that “no evidence exists which indicates that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices and negative dietary outcomes, such as obesity.” Moreover, recent studies suggest that eating habits among SNAP recipients would improve by dedicating more resources to benefits, not by restricting them. And even if SNAP recipients sometimes make “unhealthy” choices with their benefits, this is not a reason to restrict these benefits. After all, there are no rules restricting snack foods purchased with money directly related to the many tax breaks middle and upper class Americans receive each year.

All of this “anti-junk food” grandstanding comes in the same year that hundreds of thousands of food stamp recipients are set to lose their benefits thanks to rules requiring “able bodied adults” to work for their food stamps, or be cut from the program after just three months — even if they are diligently looking for work. The rules are part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act which turns 20 this August (and if LePage and others get their way, there will be no celebratory cake). Although some states (and the District) have obtained waivers from this work requirement, at least half of the country is implementing this draconian rule in 2016. This makes little sense, when you consider how difficult it can be to keep and find a job or how long it can take to prove that you are disabled, and thus cannot work.  This is exactly the population who needs SNAP benefits the most – those who cannot find work or those who are disabled but are not yet receiving disability benefits.
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Politicians are able to frame hardship as “laziness” by praying on the cognitive dissonance of the American Dream. Americans want to believe that anyone can be wealthy, no matter your hurdles. Thus, if you are poor, you are not trying hard enough. From this framework, lawmakers like LePage can convince constituents that poor people are undeserving of cake, undeserving of making a choice about what goes in their refrigerators, and undeserving of benefits at all.

This logic is unacceptable. All Americans are deserving of respect and should be empowered to make their own choices. Singling out the most vulnerable among us and subjecting them to limitations that we place on no other beneficiaries of government assistance is unfair and unwise. Cutting SNAP benefits does not promote better eating habits; it just causes more hunger among the people who can afford it least.

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