Alright, I’m crunching the numbers on this Food Stamp Challenge, called 3SquaresVT in Vermont. As a single person, I’d be eligible for food stamps if I made 185% of the poverty level, which is $1,723/month gross. I may then be eligible for up to $38/week in benefits. That would be $152/month for groceries. Here’s how it would work for my personal finances:
+ $1,378/mo net (20% tax rate, maybe?)
– $515 Rent
– $213 Student loans
– $150 Gas
– $143 Credit card payments
– $77 Phone
– $58 Other car expenses (repairs, oil changes, registration, parking, etc.)
– $39 Car Insurance
– $33 Avg heat and electricity
– $33 Internet
– $328 Eating out (if I’d spent like I did this week)
= -$211 in the red for the month
+ $152 Food Stamp benefits
So, if this were my real scenario, I’d have to take that $328 from eating out down by $211 just to break even. Numerically that’s entirely possible, but after this week I can tell you that that “eating out” money was a result of habit and desire. It was also a result of stress, the rush and time-crunch of a regular life, and a few professional events that cost money to attend.
Yesterday, blog reader Keri posted a comment about a conversation her daughter overheard at school about people who “choose” to be on welfare. From my week of experience, I sure wouldn’t choose this situation. First of all, the benefits ($38/week) seem barely worth the effort of paperwork, pride and derision, even if it is the difference between eating and not eating. (Of course, for many it IS the difference between eating and not eating.)
But I often felt angry and tired during this Food Stamp Challenge. And the repetitive meals were darn boring. I wouldn’t choose this if I had other options to make more money.
During the week, I found myself thinking some interesting things myself. I thought about returning my bag of cans and bottles and hoping it would cover a snack. I thought about selling things (strange things: can I sell blood? plasma?). I thought I’d surely have to get a second job, because the numbers just weren’t working out.
Admittedly, there were good things that came out of this too. I drank less soda and ate much less candy. I drank more water. I thought about carpooling and working closer to home. But I wouldn’t trade those things for the hunger and repetitiveness that I experienced this week.
Another set of comments from Stacie started a dialogue about my actual meal choices. I tend to eat vegetarian at home, so I didn’t have the added expense of meat this week (although tofu can be expensive too). I also shopped at the Co-Op, so most of my groceries were local, organic, fair trade, etc. I love the beans-and-rice meal I prepared for most of my lunches, but I’d have to find cheaper options if I wanted to vary my meals at all over time.
I still think that healthy food is entirely possible on the cheap, but there’s a trade-off between time and money. I could buy whole grain rice in bulk, plus different types of beans, spices, vegetables, etc. and make delicious meals out of those ingredients, but I’d also have to have the time to slow cook rice, soak beans overnight, and then prepare the meals a few times each week. That’s not entirely feasible with two jobs, kids, family responsibilities, or after a physically demanding job.
For many, time and money are both extremely hard to come by. If we can get beyond the stereotypes of it being a choice, we need to realize that there are systemic barriers to both of those resources for many people around the world.
This lesson has been the greatest for me: time can be bought with money. You can charge money for your time. You can also choose one over the other; you can even have both. But many of my “freedoms,” such as time or mobility or the joy of coffee, are bought with money. It’s a bit startling, really, to realize that what I think of as my “life” and my “happiness” and my “freedoms” are actually commodities. It makes me want to dig a little deeper and to also advocate for justice and generosity in our economic system.
Photo credit: anokarina