Nutrition Assistance Recipients Struggle with Incidences of Public Shame

(Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 24, 2014)

When Meg Johnston of Marietta, Georgia was shopping at the grocery store, she pulled out her WIC coupons to pay for the items that the program covered. She also had ice cream and soda for her family. She planned to pay cash for these items that weren’t covered by WIC. A woman saw her oversized vouchers printed with “Georgia WIC Program” and said to Johnston “[y]ou know, if you’re on government assistance you really shouldn’t be buying ice cream and soda.”  Johnston was shocked. “I didn’t know what to say. I held it together long enough to pay and get to my car, but I was bawling by the time I got in,” she said. These incidents are impossible to quantify and study, but letters to news outlets, social media posts, and caseworker and aid conversations reveal the unsolicited and guilt-producing remarks those on assistance often have to contend with when grocery shopping.

Clients tell Extriara Gates, benefits screener for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, that they hear criticisms from customers behind them in grocery store lines when they use their EBT cards or WIC vouchers. “I guess the assumption is that poor people should only eat certain things,” said Gates.

The move to EBT cards for SNAP, made to improve program administration and reduce fraud, has also helped reduce some of the stigma attached to the program, since they look like debit cards.  “Historically, there have always been these efforts to ‘guide’ the poor,” said Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science at Emory University. “‘Why give your child a sugary drink when you can give them milk?’ But there’s nothing patriotic about this kind of talk or morally upstanding about it. It’s about belittling people.”

Read the full article by Rosalind Bentley on the Atlanta-Journal Constitution website:

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