Let’s Talk About Mandatory Community Service for Food Assistance

Updated on June 7, 2018
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Valerie is a social worker and freelance writer who's passion is to help her community and raise awareness of social inequalities.


Policy changes are making it more difficult to maintain food assistance benefits

So, in case you haven’t heard, Mississippi passed a new policy recently requiring recipients of food assistance to work 20 hours a week or volunteer 20 hours a week in community service in order to maintain their food benefits. They are not the first to adopt this requirement and join at least 17 other states in 2016 who are reinstating the strict limitations on food assistance from the 1996 welfare reform. An estimated 500,000 adults are expected to lose their SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) benefits.

To begin with, I do not think that asking people to contribute for their assistance is a bad thing, but it has to be within reason. In a lot of cases, allowing people to contribute to what they receive can increase self worth, social connections and support, reduce stress, and help enrich the community. The overarching concept is not a wholly bad idea.

That being said, I do believe that the mandated 20 hours of community service is fueled more by hatred than by actual concern for our fellow citizens. There was an article posted by fox news on facebook in which an overwhelming majority voted that yes, people should have to work for their food stamps. That did not surprise me. However, the lack of tact, consideration, and empathy for our fellow human beings in the comment section never ceases to baffle me. Particularly because very few people were taking into account the many factors that complicate this issue.

A few points that many people who demand ALL people must work 20 hours a week for their supplemental food assistance may have overlooked. Please keep in mind that the first two points are a reflection on the general attitude towards food recipients and not the actual policies.

  1. If someone has children they may not be able to afford 20 hours a week in child care costs (which is thankfully considered by this particular legislation).
  2. People who are elderly or disabled may not be able to physically leave their homes or perform physical labor. (The legislation also takes this into account)
  3. Many organizations will not accept volunteers with a felony history, even non-violent felons. (A counter argument is that felons don’t deserve food assistance. I respectfully disagree but will not go into that further in this article. I’d be happy to discuss it in the comments or a separate thread).
  4. 20 is half of 40. 40 hours is considered a standard work week. Most financial experts suggest our food cost should be somewhere around 14-20% of our total income. A twenty hour work week suggest that we think they should be contributing at least half their income towards food.
  5. Not all food assistance recipients (in particular rural areas) have access to transportation to get to the community service site. In fact, where I live it can cost up to $160 per month ($5 per day x 4 days a week x 4 weeks in a month) in gasoline to get to town for the community service. If they can’t afford food how are they supposed to afford the gasoline? Or car insurance? Or regular maintenance such as oil changes?
  6. Making access to basic necessity resources such as food, water, and safety easier actually helps the entire community. When peoples basic needs are meet (food, safe water, secure and safe shelter) they are less likely to commit crimes, self medicate with illegal substances, or harm themselves or their loved ones. Future planning, reasoning skills, and emotional stability increase, and even IQ’s can increase. This is because when we are highly stressed we tend to act less rationally.
  7. Decreasing number of people on food assistance does not actually decrease the need.

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The Idea of Mandatory Community Service

Allow me to go more in depth on this issue…

Mandatory community service is often what we punish delinquent children and low level offenders with. So what does that say when we hand out this same verdict to people in poverty? It says that we’re punishing them for being poor. You may disagree with that statement but we, as a society, have a real disdain for people in poverty. We assume all number of fallacious and inaccurate stereotypes such as they are cheating the system, lazy, and dumb. It’s almost as if we try to justify our inaction to help by claiming that their poverty was a decision that they made. Let me be clear about this, nobody chooses to live in poverty. It isn’t fun, it isn’t easy, and there are absolutely zero benefits in life to being poor. In fact, being in poverty can actually cost MORE than being in middle class.

What is the value of this community service?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. Because, you know what? Money is still going into their pocket, regardless of -- the food stamp is not a replacement for work. You're not going to break even. Your always -- but if you give people the opportunity and say, ‘you can stay home and we'll pay you, you know, $200 a week, or you can work and make $300 a week.’ They go, ‘Okay, well is it really worth it?’” – FERRER – Fox News and Friends.

This is fairly typical of people who discuss food assistance without working with it regularly. To start with, nobody is making $200 a week in food assistance. The single adult receiving food assistance who is not elderly and doesn’t have children receives, at most, $194 per month for food assistance. That’s less than a quarter of what was quoted on fox news.

Another point is that the average working week is 40 hours. We want them to work a minimum of 20 hours per week to earn their food assistance. How many of us spend half our income on food? Unfortunately, the answer is probably more than it should be. However, in 2009 it was estimated that the average household spent only 13% of their total income on food, not 50%. Also, it is recommended by many financial experts that we should spend between 30-40% of our income on housing. That means we’re asking more for food than housing from people in poverty. Now, the government expects us to pay, based on their benefits formula, no more than 30% of our income on food. That would be a wonderful expectation, but in my experience, many people pay a much higher percentage when they have a low (below 150% poverty level) income.

Now let’s talk about the value of 20 hours of community service per week. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. If we multiply that by 20 hours a week that comes to $145 per week or $628.33 (145x52 and 52/12) per month before taxes or approximately $439 (30% tax rate) after taxes. So, if a single individual volunteering for 20 hours a week at minimum to earn food assistance for $194 we are valuing them at $3.15 per hour (194x1.3 (to account for gross income as if they had to pay 30% income tax) / 80 hours a month). That’s $4.10 less an hour than minimum wage.

I get that this is supposed to discourage them from staying on food assistance and instead get a job, but this is unreasonable. The time limit is set at 3 months of ‘free’ food assistance where they aren’t required to work or volunteer 20 hours a week. If, after the 3 months has passed, they are still without employment or the ability to volunteer somewhere, they are then cut off of food assistance. This is despite the fact that between 41.6-47.7% of people who are unemployed take longer than 15 weeks to find employment. In other words, roughly half of the unemployed population would be at risk of having zero income AND no access to food.

I would rather have them attend job skills, employment skills, and resume writing courses than stock a food pantry’s shelves for several hours a day. At least in that scenario they might leave knowing more about how to find and apply for paid positions. They might even know how to add that volunteering time to the resume they didn’t know how to write before. In fact, I would rather they take a nutrition class rather than mindlessly perform manual labor so that they could make better choices on what they eat. After all, we have all heard the tired argument about the family who “wasted their entire food card on chips and soda”. Yet, we don’t widely inform these same recipients that there are double up bucks food card programs at farmers markets for fresh produce, that they can buy food plant seeds to grow their own vegetables and fruits with their food card, or how to read a food label. Of course, that’s without even touching on food deserts.

Duration of Unemployment


Does reducing the number of people on assistance help?

“And Maine did it, and the results are staggering. When people know they got to put the work in, they get off food stamps” - BRIAN KILMEADEFox News and Friends

Reducing the number of individuals receiving food assistance sounds like a good thing, but is it? Obviously this reduces the number of people receiving food assistance, but does it actually reduce the NEED for food assistance? Or, rather, will this new trend in law just create a greater barrier to accessing food that people need to live. Already food assistance is merely supplemental, at least in Michigan. I work with families below 150% of the federal poverty level and nine out of ten times they tell me they have to spend money out of their own pockets by the end of the month on food. This means they often have to choose between paying for their heat or having food in that last week of the month.

Furthermore, most pantries are locally run through charity organizations such as churches, private non-profits, ect. Typically they do not do a great job at recording the numbers of people served. After all, many of these charities are volunteer run and do not have the funding to implement a costly data tracking system. Since many food banks are funded through cash and food donations, they aren’t required by any grant guidelines to track their data, so why would they? They can stay open without it. Knowing this, tracking the increase this law will have on the need for pantries is not truly possible. This means that we can see that statewide government food assistance has gone down, but we cannot see if the private charity sector is now simply handing out more food.

Reduce assistance = Reduce potential for success

A lack of resources can cause stress. I’m hungry and therefore I begin to get cranky. I am cold, therefore I didn’t sleep well, and now I’m tired and stressed today. We’ve all experienced this kind of stress before.

When someone is living in poverty they aren’t temporarily stressed by momentary hunger or an unexpected expense. The stress is constant and our bodies aren’t built for that kind of chronic stress. We know stress can impair our daily functioning, negatively impact our physical health, reduce our problem solving skills, decrease our ability to remember things, and even decrease our IQ’s. People in poverty can lose up to 13 IQ points simply from being in that constantly stressful environment. To reiterate, it is not that they are 13 points lower than a person who isn’t in poverty, but rather that the environment can cause their brains to operate less functionally up to 13 IQ points.

If we refer back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can see that we cannot reach any type of success without first having our basic needs meet. We need food, shelter, safety, and security before we can worry about things such as fitting in at work, giving back to the community, or improving our education level and skills. Those are the types of needs that allow us to go beyond simply surviving and truly thrive.

If we couple what we know of our basic needs with the effects of chronic poverty related stress we can begin to make sense of why it is so very difficult for someone on assistance to become self-sufficient and self-supporting without food assistance, rent subsidies, and so forth.


Final Thoughts

Again, I am not against the idea of more requirements for people receiving food assistance IF it serves to better their lives and make the community stronger and not as yet another barrier for those who live in poverty. The truth is, no matter how you look at the way our system attempts to punish recipients of welfare or makes them prove, time and time again, that they are worthy of our assistance, it does very little to help bridge the gap between needing assistance and being independent of that assistance.

In fact, in many instances providing more assistance actually reduces overall costs. For instance, when we provide more medical coverage for citizens who cannot afford to regularly meet with their primary care physician and purchase medications, we actually save money in the long run. This is because they do not let their health concerns go until it becomes an emergency, and emergency department visits costs millions of dollars more. North Carolina was able to save $135 million for this exact reason.

In the same way, when we provide our citizens access to healthy and adequate food assistance, our entire community can reap the benefits. For example, impoverished students are able to concentrate better in the classroom when they aren’t hungry which will allow them to become better educated and more productive citizens as adults. Parents are able to focus on other needs of their children rather than fretting about where their next meal will come from.

So while I agree that getting our citizens involved in their assistance could potentially be beneficial to society, we have to ask ourselves what is the end goal of this requirement? If it is merely to reduce the amount of funding that the government spends on food assistance, to prove our citizens worthiness of food, or as an ego boost to anyone not receiving food assistance, then our society as a whole will suffer.

Again, I don’t claim to have all of the answers but the very fact that we cheer on policy changes for which we’ve given very little thought or research to (I’m looking at you facebook threads) is concerning. The only way to make our society better is get involved. Write your congressperson, start a dialogue with your family and friends, or visit your local food pantry to see what they need. Most importantly, respect your fellow human beings and acknowledge that they are worthwhile, even when they receive welfare. We all deserve to live our lives with dignity.

Share your opinion (again) now that you have read the article

Should we mandate 20 hours of volunteering to maintain food assistance benefits?

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