USDA combats ‘mountain pride,’ self-reliance to boost food stamp rolls

Font Size:

One in seven Americans are on food stamps, but the government is pushing to enroll more — in many instances working to overcome Americans’ “pride,” self-reliance or failure to see a need.

“Our common goal is to increase participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” the United States Department of Agriculture explains on its “Outreach Toolkits” page. “Our purpose is to ensure that those going through difficult times can feed their families healthy, nutritious food. By working as a team, we can accomplish these goals.”

The USDA has adopted a range of strategies and programs designed to bring more people to SNAP, including taking on “pride.” A 2011 Hunger Champions Award document reveals that local assistance offices have been rewarded for “counteracting” pride and pushing more people to sign up for benefits.

The Ashe County Department of Social Services in Jefferson, N.C., for example, received a “Gold” award for confronting “mountain pride” and increasing food stamp participation by 10 percent.

“Hearing from the outreach worker that benefits could be used to purchase seeds and plants for their gardens turned out to be a very important strategy in counteracting what they described as ‘mountain pride’ and appealed to those who wished not to rely on others,” the document explains. “Eventually, many accepted assistance from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary program, and others, in some cases doubling a household’s net income. In 1 year, SNAP participation increased over 10 percent.”

Overcoming “beliefs” is a stated method from the USDA to bring more people to the program.

A “Common SNAP Myths” sheet from the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Community Outreach Partner Toolkit” details the importance of reaching people who do not think they qualify or have beliefs that conflict with accepting food stamps.

“Millions of low-income people are not accessing the nutrition benefits for which they qualify,” the “myth” sheet explains. “To be effective, it is important that our national and local outreach efforts counter myths about SNAP among those who think they are not eligible or have beliefs that discourage them from enrolling.”

USDA claims that eligible people who do not participate are actually harming their communities by preventing additional funds from entering their respective economies.

“SNAP is an investment in our future. It offers nutrition benefits to participating clients, supports work, and provides economic benefits to communities,” USDA explains on one of its outreach pages. “However, too many low-income people who are eligible for the program do not participate and thus forgo nutrition assistance that could stretch their food dollars at the grocery store. Their communities lose out on the benefits provided by new SNAP dollars flowing into local economies.”

The agency adds that there are many hurdles — including reticence to accept government aid — that SNAP advocates must overcome in order to make eligible people accept the government’s help.

According to the USDA, 65 percent of those eligible claim SNAP benefits, a number the agency has been working to increase.

“The most common reason eligible people do not participate is because they do not realize they may be eligible,” USDA explains. “Others choose not to apply because of myths or misunderstandings about SNAP benefits or because of stigma that continues to persist. Others make a cost-benefit decision that the time involved in applying for benefits is not worth the expected return. Some do not want to accept government assistance.”

The USDA also claims increasing food stamp participation is an economic stimulus.

“Outreach and education are powerful tools in overcoming barriers to SNAP participation. Even a small increase in SNAP participation can have a substantial impact,” USDA continues. “If the national participation rate rose 5 percentage points, 1.9 million more low-income people would have an additional $1.3 billion in benefits per year to use to purchase healthy food and $2.5 billion total in new economic activity would be generated nationwide.”

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, described USDA’s assertion that food stamps are beneficial to the economy as “ludicrous.”

Sessions, who has had his eye on food stamp reform for years, added that USDA’s focus on reducing cultural impediments to food stamp participation is particularly concerning.

“I think it’s a deep problem when SNAP officials think it is their duty to overcome ‘mountain pride’ or overcome the American sense of independence and individual responsibility,” Sessions told The Daily Caller in an interview. “They seem to think that is an anachronism and that modern Americans shouldn’t have pride and independence. I think it is highly troubling actually.” (SEE ALSO: USDA suggests food stamp parties, games to increase participation)

The Alabama senator’s most recent attempts at SNAP reform, in the 2012 farm bill — 80 percent of which was food stamp spending — were voted down by the Democratic majority in the Senate.

SNAP spending has doubled since 2008 and quadrupled since 2001. Participation has increased from 1-in-50 on food stamps in the 1970s to 1-in-7 today.

In a statement to The Daily Caller, USDA spokesman Alyn G. Kiel explained the agency’s SNAP outreach effort as an information distribution partnership with state and local agencies, advocates, employers, community and faith-based organizations, and others to help eligible people decide if they want to participate in SNAP.

“Congress allocates funds to USDA with the mandate to conduct public education about the benefits of SNAP and how to apply to help reduce hunger in America,” she explained in an email. “The agency began airing radio ads in 2004 and more recently developed a Community Toolkit to help organizations engage with elderly people who may be eligible but are not participating in SNAP. Public education is targeted to eligible individuals in the populations and geographic areas with the most need including the elderly and working poor.”

While Sessions does not begrudge food for those truly in need, he argues that the goal should be giving Americans the tools they need to get off food stamps, not adopting strategies to get more people on them. (FLASHBACK: Lottery winner using food stamps: ‘I thought maybe it was okay because I’m not working’)

To be sure, USDA claims that 50 percent of new participants leave the program within 9 months of enrolling — a statistic derived from a 1998 study — and that the assistance can help keep recipients healthy for work.

“Employees whose nutrition needs are met at home may be healthier and thus may take fewer sick days for themselves or their children. Employees may stay longer with companies that care about them by sharing information about SNAP benefits and its importance as a work support,” USDA explains. “SNAP helps families become financially stable and make the transition to self-sufficiency, getting them through the tough times.”

USDA contends that SNAP even offers incentives to get back to work, as SNAP benefits only decrease by 24 to 36 cents for every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns.

In the interim, however, USDA wants as many people as it can muster to join the program.

The Daily Caller reported last week that the USDA has been encouraging local SNAP offices to recruit with SNAP parties and games. CNN Money further reported that for the last four months the agency was running paid radio ads — costing taxpayers between $2.5 million to $3 million — in California, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and the New York City metro area.

According to Sessions, there needs to be top-down reform of the program, commencing with actually categorizing SNAP as a welfare program.

“It should be coordinated with all the other welfare programs in an effort to move people from help to work, to help people move from temporary assistance to work and gainful employment,” Sessions said. “This is what the 1996 welfare reform focused on and it was very successful, but it does appear that we have slid back from that. The whole country needs to once again go through these programs and make them as beneficial to the recipients as possible.”

Follow Caroline on Twitter