Eating on $21 a week?

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Four U.S. Representatives -- three Democrats and a Republican -- are spending the week eating on $21 in groceries because that's the average benefit of someone living on food stamps. They're blogging their experience, and the comments are getting very interesting.

I won't be cynical and say the effort is a political ploy; perhaps, rather, that they are trying to make a political point for increased benefit and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Say what you might but even a small government could do worse for its own survival and the well-being of the citizenry than give away food.

But is the $21 figure fair? Or realistic by the USDA's own logic? Can you effectively reproduce the experience of someone receiving food stamps this way?

My problem with the experiment is that such a little amount of money is never meant to cover all food costs, but rather supplement expenses. Looking at the USDA March 2007 (latest available; PDF link) costing for various food plans you see the Thrifty plan, from which food stamp values are derived. For a man aged 19-50 (as I am) the weekly Thrifty grocery costs should be $35.20, very tight but better than $21. So would Hubby and I get $70.40 hypothetically? No, because the USDA recognizes that smaller families and individuals can't buy food as cost effectively as larger families. A household of two men our age would "rate" 10% more or $77.44. A male-female couple the same age range -- as at least one of the House member participants probably is -- would merit $73.90, not $42. That's $320 a month. The difference comes -- I'm guessing -- in the lower allotments for small children averaged in or that food stamps don't cover everything.

The calculus for these values is beyond my comprehension, but fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fish and some meat is factored in. (PDF link.) This improved understanding includes contemporary foodways and a broader selection of ethically-appropriate choices than when I first started looking at the Thrifty plan years ago. I certainly lived on this budget for longer than I care to remember.

Yes, hunger and health are big national issues; but looking at the numbers I think I'll reserve my anger for uncontrolled housing and health costs which are more likely to put a family in peril.

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