The description in this story and on this facebook page show that the challenge assumes a monthly stipend of $150.00, or 75% of the maximum allowed for a single person. A single person working 30.5 hours a week at federal minimum wage, paying $550.00 in rent and $125.00 in utilities per month (the bottom end of the national average for a 1 bedroom apartment according to Numbero) or a single person receiving $315.00 a month in unearned income (like alimony) or $393.00 a month in earned income (13.5 hours a week at federal minimum wage, or three 4.5 hour shifts) and listing no expenses would receive this much.
These individuals would also be eligible for other assistance programs (results based on first example - 30.5 hours/week at federal minimum wage, single person) and these services can be applied for simultaneously, reducing or even eliminating the strain on the individual's monetary income, so the treatment of food stamps as the sole available income for grocery spending is, in many cases, false or misleading.
Further, taking a single week out of context, and treating one's shopping budget as per-week with no holdover (as in the rule against using anything existing in your pantry) is a deceptively unfrugal method. This limits the participant from being able to use careful planning and conservative cooking habits to stretch a food budget, as we do at my house, a habit which allowed us to not use all of the budget the state allotted us. Purchasing meat products in larger sizes for a primary usage when they are on sale (a roast, a whole turkey, bulk ground meat) will result in a mass of leftovers which can be divided, frozen, and used in later recipes (soups and stews, casseroles, stir-fries and other mixed foods) is one method that only works if you measure your budget with a long-term approach instead of taking into account only the immediate future. Purchasing ingredients instead of ready-made items is another; cost-effective purchase of ingredients that keep (like flour, oil, rice, or dry beans) means buying more than you will use in a week. Take away that planning ability, and your challenge forces the participant to buy pre-packaged, ready-made foods, the immediate purchase of which is less expensive than the immediate total cost of bulk ingredients, but which will be much more rapidly used up.
One thing that participation in the challenge can demonstrate is the impact of small but repeated wasteful spending habits on a monthly food budget. Single-serve foods and beverages, pre-made foods, and unhealthy snacks can more than double grocery expenses. Another is the impact of shopping at the wrong place. Equidistant from my apartment is a grocery store and a convenience store. The convenience store carries some of the same products as the grocery, but the price difference is considerable, even sticking with just grocery items. A gallon of milk from the convenience store is double the price charged by the grocery. A loaf of bread is two and a half times as much. Delving into the snack and convenience item shelves, there are items which are triple the grocery store price. Worse, when I worked at that little store, we had customers asking if they could use food stamps to purchase fountain drinks, machine-made cappuccino, and roller-grill items (expensive as heck; compare spending $1.50 on one hot dog to $4.00 on a package of 8 at the grocery.) Had the store been able to accept food stamps, the answer would have unfortunately been yes.
I know the point of the exercise is showing that living on food stamps is hard. Of course it's hard. Living on any tight budget is hard. The problem is that Americans are starting to forget the difference between hard, and impossible. It has become too easy to fall back on the government for the answer to every little problem, and to not get back up from that safety net once you're down. It's all to easy too get comfortable extending one's budget on someone else's dollar.
The difficulty in remaining within a $35.00 weekly budget is not solely indicative of insufficient funding, insufficient provision, or callousness on the part of public servants for not finding ways to increase the stipend. It is in part indicative of the incomplete picture presented by the test itself, and more so of the level to which America has relaxed its standards of ingenuity, industriousness, diligence, and tenacity. The only remaining question is how hard will our economy have to crash before we figure that out?
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