For one in seven Americans, the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps, is all that stands between them and too little food.
But the complicated calculus of financial survival for the working poor also means any cuts to the roughly $80 billion SNAP, as it's known, being considered by Congress would be felt well beyond the grocery checkout line. Buying new school clothes, family outings, even getting a toehold in the financial mainstream could be thrown into limbo.
For many of the working poor, their wages just don't go far enough. The National Employment Law project says nearly 60 percent of jobs created in the post-recession recovery pay $13.83 or less an hour, and hourly wages for some low-wage occupations fell by more than 5 percent in just three years.
Food service and temporary employment make up 43 percent of the post-recession job growth, according to NELP policy analyst Jack Temple. "They overwhelmingly pay low wages," Temple said. "For that lower segment, you're going to see increased use of safety net programs to make up the difference."
Sharonton Taylor of Marietta, Ga., is a single mom of three, even working full-time and earning $9.50 an hour as a certified nurse's aide qualifies her for $500 a month in food stamps. (Like Medicaid, SNAP is federally funded but administered at the state level.) That's still about $150 less than the U.S.D.A.'s average monthly estimate of what a "low-cost food plan" should cost for Taylor's family.
If that $500 were cut, Taylor wouldn't be able to buy new clothes for her daughter and two sons, or take them on the kind of outings middle-class kids take for granted. "We'd play Uno or do something around the house, try to make it fun for them, instead of going to the zoo, to the aquarium, stuff like that," she said.
Taylor said it's hard trying to explain to her kids, who are eight, five and four, about the family's dire financial straits. "I have to tell them, 'Mom don't have it right now. Don't you want a roof over your head?'... I have to keep telling them that."
Buying less food
The next step would be simply buying less food, she said. As it is, Taylor said she often struggles to make it until the 9th day of each month, when her SNAP card is refilled. "I'll try to make the food last… It feels hard to stretch, especially if you cook everyday. I get low at the end of the month and I have another week to go." During that week, cheap, filling staples like spaghetti fill the gap.
"As finances get worse, the dietary quality also gets worse," warned Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator of Children's HealthWatch at the Boston University-affiliated Boston Medical Center. "Poor nutrition isn't obvious to the lay person," she said. "This is a health problem. I think that's the connection that people miss."