I’m not much of a contributor to online communities, but I’ve immensely enjoyed lurking around here for a few months and seeing the loving, supporting community on this site; as well as the awesome insight into life, generally, that people seem to have. A couple months ago, in the wake of Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP Challenge failure (I mean that both in her failure to follow through but mostly her misguided attempt to do it in the first place), I thought about writing about why the SNAP challenge bothers me so fucking much. I kind of petered out on that when I realized that everything I had to say about it was stuff I’d written for a food policy course and didn’t translate well into something that didn’t have a month of conversation as context behind it (always happy to publish anyway, though). But a couple days ago, I saw another post about how confusing and horrible it is to access SNAP benefits, and I just feel like I wanted to share my experience with this, on “both sides of the desk,” as they say.

As super brief background: a few years ago, I did an AmeriCorps term with a national nonprofit that teaches nutrition education and cooking skills to lower-income families. It was a wonderful but totally weird experience for a lot of reasons (the organization’s biggest financial sponsors are corporations I consider major players in US food insecurity, for one thing); it also meant I experienced the ol’ AmeriCorps theory that you should ~Live Like Those You Serve~, which meant I got paid less than minimum wage and my food budget came entirely from SNAP. Now, I work as a DHS eligibility worker, so I determine eligibility for and administer SNAP benefits and Medicaid benefits, specifically for people who are disabled and/or over the age of 60.

When I applied for SNAP as an AmeriCorps member, it was the first time I’d done so, and it was absolutely one of the worst experiences of my life. I was treated brusquely, questioned in a way I felt was demeaning and dismissive, and I was so, so, so confused. I’m also college-educated, reasonably intelligent, read and write English, and was literally holding a letter on official letterhead saying that none of my income was to be counted in my benefit calculation, so it could not have been easier for any person to navigate the system. It was still fucking horrible and I cried in my car for an hour afterward because I didn’t even feel like a person. When I got my six-month review, I ignored it because “they have my income exclusion letter on file,” and when I didn’t get my benefits the next month, I called, freaking out because, hello, that was my entire food budget. I say this as background to say: I get it. It is NOT easy to navigate the bureaucracy that is SNAP.

Below, some things about SNAP, from a worker/total policy nerd’s perspective.

A couple things about the SNAP program: first, it’s a federal program, administered by individual states. That means things differ from state to state in determining benefit eligibility, so I can only/will only speak to what I know is federal and to my state (which is Oregon)’s policies. One of the biggest differences from state to state is what is called “categorical eligibility.” Essentially, the federal government says that the income limit for SNAP is 130% of the Federal Poverty Level ($1265/mo for one person; $2584 for four). However, states can make households “categorically eligible” and create a new, higher income limit by providing them with a brochure or referral to community resources. It also WAY opens up the resource limit, which is great for people using SNAP as a stopgap between incomes who don’t want to destroy their entire safety net.

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43 SNAP-administering jursidictions do this; each state determines the new income limit relative to the FPL. Oregon’s is 185% — this is $1815/mo for one person or $3536 for four, so it makes a huge difference. There is no “cap” on who can receive SNAP as long as they meet eligibility requirements, and the program does not run out of money within those limits (this is different from WIC, which can run out) — so if you think you qualify but don’t want to “take money from someone who needs it more,” don’t fear: you won’t! An additional fun fact: every $1 of federal SNAP money generates $1.79 of economic activity in the state where it’s spent, so it’s in states’ best interest to encourage SNAP use.

A couple other things about SNAP: it is super confusing. The rules change all the time, usually every quarter, with the biggest ones happening October 1 and January 1. The rules are not standardized across states, despite it being a federal program, so if you move, you might find yourself being asked different questions, told different reporting requirements, and getting significantly less or more than you were in your previous state. The reporting requirements might be different from your Medicaid reporting requirements and if you’re applying for both together, the reporting requirements of one impact the other, so always go with the stricter reporting requirement.

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Also: the workers are overworked. The aging & people with disabilities offices here are VASTLY less hectic than the self-sufficiency ones, with MUCH smaller caseloads, and I still have 450-500 people at any given time. However, we are not (exclusively) assholes — most people I work with are totally in support of the social services we administer; it’d be a shit job if you weren’t. We really, really don’t want things to be confusing — it makes things difficult on people, which feels crappy on its own, and it also makes things harder for us and means we get a lot of angry phone calls. We (at least at my office) spend a lot of time in the back, when we’ve found out about some policy change that went into effect last month, talking about how one of the tenets of the program is to reduce barriers to access, while another seems to be “make things as confusing as possible.”

I think one of the biggest problems we all have is that we see dozens of people every day, and the process becomes rote. I’m not saying everyone we see seems the same — I know every person has a different story… and I also know that some people are awesome and some people are dicks. It’s just, you explain things so many times, and you forget not everyone has heard it as many times as you’ve said it. It gets easy to gloss over things that are important but basic, and I think that’s probably true of any job. For that reason, I encourage anyone applying for benefits to ask the person they’re talking to to explain it to someone who doesn’t spend all day thinking about it. It should jar them out of their autopilot, and they’ll hopefully explain it better to you, and to the person after you.

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One final thing, and I say this in every bold, underlined, italic, large print option possible. You SHOULD NOT EVER be made to feel like you shouldn’t get benefits you’re entitled to. EVER. If you are getting bad customer service, particularly for something more dire than someone just being cranky, please, please, please tell someone. There are laws against discrimination (the federal government protects race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, political beliefs, or disability; other states have more protected classes — Oregon protects sexual orientation, for example). Outside of protected classes, there are policies and processes for filing grievances: for everything from incorrect benefit calculation to someone being rude (but not against you for a protected reason). If you make a complaint, the office is required to take it seriously and follow up, so please do. Seriously. Even if it’s nothing personal against the worker, even if you like your worker, do it. I had a person recently who questioned something I had done, I turned out to be in the wrong, and she got benefits restored. It was great — I didn’t get in trouble, because I don’t fuck up all the time and because I was able to point out and agree with where I’d gone wrong, and she got what she should have had all along. You are 100% allowed to question your worker if you think they’re doing something wrong. You should be given a sheet with your application about filing grievances, there should be posters in the lobby, and your worker, reception, or a supervisor should be able to get you that information ASAP.

This is already more or less the longest thing in existence, but I could go on about SNAP and/or food policy for another year or two, so if anyone has any questions or wants links to policy, or wants to hear a slightly-more-than-layperson’s thoughts on food insecurity, please, let