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Food stamps while in school?
December 8, 2010 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Is it ethical for a (graduate) student to use food stamps? Looking for perspectives from both sides of the argument.

Pro:
On the one hand, your standard graduate student has taken out thousands and thousands of dollars in loans, and is too busy studying to get a job that can support them. With a degree, they will be able to earn substantially more money than otherwise, which means they will be paying more taxes back, which is good in the long run. Also, the amount of money taken per year ($2400) is tiny compared to how much they pay in taxes anyway. Finally, if the government didn't want students to use food stamps, they would add that provision to the application.

Con:
On the other hand, they could always take out a few thousand more in loans, because it was their choice to go that route. This is government money that ultimately comes from the people, many of whom struggle to pay their taxes. This isn’t something you should just apply for with the intent of getting extra food money. This is money that should be used for those who are working and cannot make ends meet to feed themselves or their family or for those that literally cannot work (disabled persons). If you have beer in your fridge, then you should not be using food stamps.

Special Snowflake:
Let's say a grad student gets a job and earns about enough to break even. The food stamps allow them to save money to tuck away for the future - for paying for next year's classes, etc. They already went through the steps to inform the government that they were now working, but they were told that they would be contacted in 4-8 months for a benefit reassessment. Does this change anything?

(also, I live in michigan if that makes any difference)
posted by rebent to Work & Money (70 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're eligible, go for it.
posted by Slinga at 8:00 PM on December 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


I looked into government assistance (healthcare for my kid) and found that as a grad student, I was ineligable.

YMMV.

Ethically, I'm more on the side of no, it is not okay.
posted by k8t at 8:01 PM on December 8, 2010


I don't see any ethical dilemma. If you apply and you qualify, then the benefits are for you. The reason why you qualify is nobody's business. If you want to assuage your guilt: use the benefits to get to a better place; then when you're there, you have a special obligation to give back as much as you can. Donate and work at food banks, soup kitchens, meals on wheels etc.
posted by amethysts at 8:04 PM on December 8, 2010 [16 favorites]


I'd rephrase the question, I don't think it matters that the form of assistance is food stamps: Do you think that the taxpayer should subsidize graduate education?

(personally I think the answer to that question usually depends on the field of study, others may disagree)
posted by ripley_ at 8:06 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your "cons" are essentially a lot of unsupportable assumptions about the purpose of food stamps.

If you qualify for food stamps, food stamps are for you. The definition of "who should apply for food stamps" is the people who qualify for them. If you qualify for them, they are for you.
posted by jayder at 8:06 PM on December 8, 2010 [45 favorites]


I believe there are rules for eligibility for food stamps that are designed to deal with your situation (being a student). If you meet those requirements, you are an intended beneficiary. I do not see any ethical dilemma.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:10 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just addressing your final point: "they were told that they would be contacted in 4-8 months for a benefit reassessment" - this sounds to me like you might be required to pay back benefits accrued between when you started working and when the reassessment takes place. Just something to bear in mind, although maybe it doesn't work that way where you are.
posted by lollusc at 8:11 PM on December 8, 2010


ripley_: I'd rephrase the question, I don't think it matters that the form of assistance is food stamps: Do you think that the taxpayer should subsidize graduate education?

But that's not the question. The question is: given a state in which the state government has decided to "subsidize graduate education" (that is, allow students to collect food stamps for which they are otherwise eligible), is it ethical for a student to collect food stamps? Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be? It's what the program is for.

On preview: what jayder and ClaudiaCenter said.
posted by gerryblog at 8:12 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay, a little unclear about what you're talking about here. Most graduate students on the Ph.D. level actually don't take out loans because their programs pay them to be there. Ph.D. candidates are theoretically eligible for food stamps in most states as they're working full time and earning money, just not that much. I know a number of Ph.D. students whose wives have gone on their state's nutritional program for pregnant/nursing mothers.

But if you're taking out loans to finance your education, you aren't working. Michigan requires that you either be working or cooperating with an employment agency. You may not turn down any job you are offered. This is largely incompatible with being a graduate student. Since that seems to be what you're talking about, then the question is less whether this is ethical than whether it's even legal. You'll probably want to discuss this with a local expert and/or a Michigan FAP officer, but signs point to "No."
posted by valkyryn at 8:12 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Previously (and Michigan, also).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:12 PM on December 8, 2010


If you qualify and don't have enough money to eat well/meet all your financial obligations comfortable, there is absolutely no reason not to take the assistance. Even though it may not seem this way culturally, these programs were made for people like you... even though your situation is more temporary than that of many others.

If it matters, I too am a poor (but not quite impoverished), midwestern student. I know what it feels like to technically have enough most of the, but still end up living on $10 a week occasionally. Frankly, though it had not previously occurred to me, I would not hesitate to take food stamps.
posted by faeuboulanger at 8:13 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Of course it's not unethical to use a social service for which you qualify. When you later have money, you will be paying into the system. As long as you do not defraud the system, you're in the ethical clear from every possible standpoint.
posted by Willie0248 at 8:15 PM on December 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think it does matter that the form of assistance is food. The idea of food stamps is that people who can't afford food still need to eat; we don't have to let people starve to death, so let's not. That's all there is to it. At no point in the process do they weigh your reason for being poor against other reasons to figure out if you're worthy or not. That's just not part of this particular social contract.
posted by amethysts at 8:16 PM on December 8, 2010


Foodstamps are a small redress of the huge redistribution of wealth from lower- and middle-class Americans to upper-class Americans. Like it or not, our government and our economic system is a largely gamed device. It leaves many people impoverished and grants other great benefits due to the specifics of their position (birth, access to educational opportunities, etc).

Laws are put in place through representative democracy to adjust this apportionment. More often than not the legal system is manipulated by corporate interests which have the resources to hire large teams of lobbyists to direct government funds and regulations toward their employers' or industries' benefit.

In other cases, laws are passed which actually benefit a large portion of the population.

The income distribution in the United States is currently such that a large percentage of Americans cannot afford to buy food with the money they earn through work. Our representatives in Congress have chose to address this problem in part through the food stamps program. This program not only benefits individuals and families who would otherwise be hungry. It also benefits the agricultural and packaged food industries which would otherwise not have markets for their products.

In May 2010, Reuters reported that 40 million Americans were receiving foodstamps. That's approximately 12.5% of the population.

tl;dr
Go for it. This doesn't begin to be an ethical question. If you qualify, you qualify and you should take the benefit. If not for yourself, do it for the sake of Conagra, Monsanto, and Kraft Foods.
posted by alms at 8:17 PM on December 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Here's a USDA factsheet with a section on students. Eligibility while a student depends upon additional factors such as being in work study or having a dependent.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:18 PM on December 8, 2010


valkyryn: Okay, a little unclear about what you're talking about here. Most graduate students on the Ph.D. level actually don't take out loans because their programs pay them to be there

it's a master's program and it's similar to a MBA, so we get very little assistance. Almost enough subsidized loans, but that's it.

according to this: http://www.mfia.state.mi.us/mars/ez_track/MARS060.asp from ClaudiaCenter's link, I do qualify even tho I am working.
posted by rebent at 8:26 PM on December 8, 2010


It's absolutely unethical - for your employer to pay an educated professional so little that you need foodstamps to make it thru grad school.

Is it ethical you apply for and recieve them? Hell yes. Look at it as another loan - society helps you out through a tight time, and in return, you use your education to become a productive member of society. Win/win.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:29 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you take federal assistance, you pretty much sacrifice the right to complain about your federal taxes at any future point in your life. Your call, of course, whether that's a price worth paying.
posted by foursentences at 8:30 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I asked myself the same question my first year in grad school. Firstly, (assuming you're single & childless), you'd be surprised how poor you have to be to qualify.

Personally, I felt squicky taking them when I was certainly "poor grad student", but since I only had to support myself, I had money for groceries every week plus my social life and occasional indulgence.

YMMV of course depending on how much housing/food costs in your area. Basically, if you are making a lot of sacrifices to eat adequately, I wouldn't feel bad taking them.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:33 PM on December 8, 2010


Apply. Sounds like you are among the working poor and would be eligible. SNAP benefits are intended for people who need assistance. Other countries subsidize students lifestyles with stipends and subsidies because their success is in the best interest of society.

Apply.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:37 PM on December 8, 2010


Forego luxuries and indulgences up until the point when your lifestyle resembles the lifestyle of some hypothetical poor person whom you wouldn't begrudge taking government assistance.

At which point, accept the assistance.

Recognize that you are giving up on certain understandings of yourself as self-made or proud or prideful.

I have also experienced short-term financial hardships during the expectation of long-term wealth, and I did not happen to choose to accept government assistance, in part because of the stock I place in perceiving myself as self-made -- your priorities do not need to be identical to mine.
posted by foursentences at 8:41 PM on December 8, 2010


*"whose taking government assistance you wouldn't begrudge"
posted by foursentences at 8:42 PM on December 8, 2010


The question is: given a state in which the state government has decided to "subsidize graduate education" (that is, allow students to collect food stamps for which they are otherwise eligible), is it ethical for a student to collect food stamps? Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be? It's what the program is for.

Participation in a program that you believe is unethical is pretty obviously not ethical. It's the same question.
posted by ripley_ at 8:43 PM on December 8, 2010


I do qualify even tho I am working.

That tool doesn't discuss work eligibility, as far as I can tell. Sure, you're poor. Most students are. But having no money is not the only requirement. You also have to be either working full-time--as in "actually making money"--or cooperating with workforce development. Being a student would seem to preclude you from both of those things.

Again, discuss with a local expert, but signs still point to "No."
posted by valkyryn at 8:45 PM on December 8, 2010


It's weird because I was already getting grants from the government...and attending a public university, but I felt AWFUL about getting food stamps. I ended up getting them and using them, but I still feel kind of guilty about it, irrational or not. I was getting by without them, having them allowed me to worry less, eat better, and focus more on school. Who knows? Maybe I would have gotten sick from eating crap food and gone into debt to pay for medical care and then flunked out of school if I hadn't gotten them...

Now that I have a "real job," I donate food to homeless shelters and volunteer at food kitchens. I feel bad that some people who really really really need them have a lot of trouble getting them. I was lucky I had enough free time to wait in the office for two days and to juggle all sorts of paperwork.
posted by melissam at 8:46 PM on December 8, 2010


I don't know what PhD programs valkyryn's talking about, but every (non-science) grad student I know has to take out additional financial aid.

When he says that a university "pays for you to be there," there are typically two things at play: tuition reimbursement and a TA/PAship. They usually go together, and on the university's side the tuition reimbursement is considered part of the offer package that they give you. So if I began grad school this year, I wouldn't have to pay the $10,941 that my state university would charge me as an in-state resident, which would be nice.

However, looking at the other expected costs, they still expect me to be responsible for about $15,550 -- in books ($1100), room and board ($9250), and travel and other miscellaneous expenses ($5200). So $15,550 divided by 12 is roughly $1296. (Typically, they go by semesters, but let's assume you're a camp counselor or have an awesome job in the bowels of the library during the summer and everything works out just great.)

The TA/PAship pays you. How much? Well, I earned about $1000 a month. So I was looking at $1000 in assets and $1296 in liabilities every month. And I was one of the lucky ones, with family nearby, a good bus pass, a healthy life and few extra expenses (no research or conference travel, either -- people tend to get grants for those, but they're pretty competitive).

Yeah, I'd say you should go for the food stamps.
posted by Madamina at 8:57 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The definition of "who should apply for food stamps" is the people who qualify for them. If you qualify for them, they are for you.

Come on, this is completely untenable. Just because a person qualifies for a program does not mean that their participation in that program is ethical.

By what standards would you consider a transfer of money from the average taxpayer to an MBA student not regressive?
posted by ripley_ at 8:58 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dude, people serving in the armed forces are getting food stamps to make ends meet. If they qualify without ethical dilemma, you do. Food stamps are not for a special class of people; they are for the working poor, the unemployed poor and the scholastic poor.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:01 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why would it be wrong for you to receive food stamps, if you qualify? Don't you think those who created these programs would have precluded people like you if that was what they wanted?

On the other hand, they could always take out a few thousand more in loans, because it was their choice to go that route.

It would be your choice to apply for food stamps, just as it would be your choice to apply for more (presumably government-subsidized) loans. Food stamps would make more sense, if you qualify, because you wouldn't have to pay anything back (except in the form of taxes later). My guess would be that you would be a more productive citizen if you were taking advantage of food stamps now than if you were to take out more loans that you may or may not default on.

This is government money that ultimately comes from the people, many of whom struggle to pay their taxes. This isn’t something you should just apply for with the intent of getting extra food money.

Food stamps exist precisely to get extra food money to people. That's why Americans pay for it, through their taxes. Do you also feel guilty about using roads, even though you could conceivably tuck and roll through the grasslands to get where you need to go?

This is money that should be used for those who are working and cannot make ends meet to feed themselves or their family or for those that literally cannot work (disabled persons).

This is your private ethical code that you're applying to a public benefits program. Many public benefits advocates have fought pretty hard to keep students eligible for food stamps, under appropriate circumstances.

If you have beer in your fridge, then you should not be using food stamps.

I don't think you can buy beer with food stamps. Should people with laptops not qualify for the earned income tax credit? Should wealthy people pay a special toll at libraries? Where does this logic end?

Once again, I have no idea if you qualify, but if you do, then you do so because the people drafting the statutes feel that people like you should qualify. Any reason why you feel uncomfortable about food stamps is your own private issue, and IMHO sort of classist. Even though you're poor enough to qualify for food stamps, you don't feel "really" poor? What gives?

On the other hand, if you don't qualify, then you have your answer right there.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:08 PM on December 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


By what standards would you consider a transfer of money from the average taxpayer to an MBA student not regressive?
posted by ripley_ 3 minutes ago [+]


I still look to the face of the requirements as the best guide for "who should get this benefit" -- this is not a nuanced family relationship or a painful zero sum game, it's a huge food distribution system that is not that expensive and has the vast majority of USians support.

But, assuming your argument for a moment -- I would think that most persons who are: (1) poor enough to qualify for food stamps; and (2) in graduate school are (C)(6)(#) not likely to be our overlords anytime soon. Occasional poor future-titan MBA student notwithstanding.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:10 PM on December 8, 2010


What would John Waters do?

He'd invite his friends over for a nice cocktail party, and buy tins of crab-meat with his food stamps.
posted by ovvl at 9:16 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Doesn't feel ethical to me. The fact that you have to ask suggests it doesn't feel right to you, either. You're grad student broke, not real person poor-- and you've already said that you're financing your education with loans but just want to avoid taking that extra amount (food stamp $ equivalent) in loans to save yourself future money. How is this even a hard question?
posted by J. Wilson at 9:18 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Any reason why you feel uncomfortable about food stamps is your own private issue, and IMHO sort of classist. Even though you're poor enough to qualify for food stamps, you don't feel "really" poor? What gives?

This has nothing to do with classism. If you can expect to make a lot of money after graduation, you're not poor in any meaningful sense. Refer to the permanent income hypothesis for more on that.
posted by ripley_ at 9:18 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I qualified for, and used, food stamps when I was a graduate student in the state of Florida and made $10,000 a year. I could have taken out more loans to cover the cost of food (which I would have had to report to them; they factored this in in their rigorous qualification process). I did not feel guilty, and did not feel as if I was obligated to shoulder (more) debt just to be able to eat and pay rent, despite the fact that I was choosing to be in graduate school.

If the state of Florida hadn't intended food stamps to be used that way, they would have made me ineligible.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:46 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think there is a real answer to this question.
I think the question you can really ask and answer are:

What are your conceptions of the relationship between individuals and society,
and is taking food stamps as a student consistent with those ideas.

If you were in Australia or Europe, the majority (but not unanimous) answer would be take the food stamps.

In the United States (where I lived for 5 years), the need for individuals to pay their own way seems to be spoken of more frequently as an important ideal, nevertheless I think many people in the US would support you using food stamps. I think that the fact that you qualify for the program, which has been around a long time and such an obvious target for budget savings scrutiny, is a decent indication of this.

I think you should think about where you fit on the spectrum from frequent-Ayn-Rand-quoter to property-is-theft-communitarian and make a decision consistent with your ideals.
But if you take the stamps, you need to make a promise to yourself keep those ideals even when they don’t directly benefit you.

I’d take them with no qualms; I think welfare programs and government supported education are of tremendous benefit to society. If you agree, and intend to support policies and organisations which embody those ideals, I think you should take them too.
posted by compound eye at 9:56 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you can expect to make a lot of money after graduation, you're not poor in any meaningful sense. Refer to the permanent income hypothesis for more on that.

At the risk of promoting the dictionary definition of "poor" over a read of Friedman, I disagree. If the OP does not have enough money for a bare minimum of healthy food, then, assuming no other pattern of financial irresponsibility and no unmentioned cachet of money, he is poor by any sane description.

If the OP qualifies for food stamps, then those who actually administer the program have decided that people like him shall receive assistance. If the OP qualifies for food stamps, then those who actually administer the program have decided that it is not better for society for the OP to take out more non-dischargeable loan money from the government (or worse, a private company), or for the OP to worsen his health by going through the "packet-of-ramen-a-day" cliche or to subsist on fast food, but rather that he should receive a reasonable amount of money to get some stuff from the grocery store. It's also probably a nice side effect that the OP will probably be more appreciative of what society can do for its citizens, and what he can do for those less fortunate than him, as we have seen from at least one person upthread.

We don't know how wealthy the OP is going to be after graduation, but unless he has a time machine to bring future-money to the present-grocer's - I don't mean a loan, I mean an actual TARDIS duct-taped to a Delorean, with Mr. Peabody at the helm - then that is not relevant. He lacks money now. If he qualifies for public benefits now, then it makes perfect sense for him to exercise his rights.

...

If, on the other hand, he does not qualify for food stamps, and he may very well not, then clearly those who actually administrate the program agree with some or all of your points, and there is no ethical discussion here, outside of obvious things like "don't lie on your food stamp application."
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:04 PM on December 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you qualify, then take them. They're for people who need help buying food. I don't see why anyone thinks this is a problem. If you need food now, you need it now - doesn't matter if you're going to be a future gazillionaire. Present need for basic necessities should NOT be judged on future potential. Potential is ephemeral.

Your point about not getting food stamps if you have beer in the fridge -

I would discount this reason. The income restrictions to qualify, and what you can buy with food stamps are already gone over with a fine tooth comb. The government doesn't care what you do with the rest of your own money (provided your honest about your income). If a beer is your pleasure, or giant brownie cake, who cares. Richer people waste far more money on pleasures, its creepy to worry about how a poor person uses their own money for entertainment.
posted by shinyshiny at 10:40 PM on December 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Governments create and manage the economic environment for everyone to operate in--citizens, businesses, non-profits, everything.

If a government allows you to qualify for food stamps, you are free to assume it is on purpose and you should do it. A business does not fret about the morality of taking this or that tax break. For example, when a manager takes a subordinate out for lunch for an annual review, that is tax-deductible. The government creates that tax benefit for that company. Businesses take that.

I think I could make a strong argument based on amount of dollars written off by businesses for expensed lunches compared to food stamps, but I'm not even going to bother. The government creates requirements for both receiving food stamps and for expensing lunches. Take advantage of what you can, and if you don't want it to be that way, write your Senator while you still take advantage of it.
posted by oreofuchi at 11:01 PM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, if I can't take food stamps now because I might be wealthier in the future, does that mean that if I was wealthy in the past, but not anymore, that I can't use them? I'm struggling to see how your future potential situation has any greater or lesser bearing on your need to eat now than your previous situation.

Two futher points:
1. I assume that others aren't missing out because you are using the system - that would influence my decision.
2. Have faith in the administrators of the system - they probably have given the matter some thought and they have decided that it is ok for a grad student to use the system
posted by dantodd at 12:09 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't see an ethical dilemma. As long as you are being completely honest on your food stamp application, and you qualify, there is no breach of ethics here. The Food Stamp program was designed to help eligible Americans with the cost of food. That's it. It wasn't designed only for people who are literally starving or anything like that. You aren't taking food stamps from anyone else. The food stamp program isn't administered on a first come first serve basis or on a quota basis. Anyone who applies and is eligible gets food stamps, period. What's more, you do indeed pay taxes either directly (sales taxes on anything you purchase) and indirectly (you pay rent, and your landlord uses that to pay property and income taxes) therefore you are entitled to the use of these programs.
posted by katyggls at 2:14 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you don't qualify for food stamps, but still need food, contact your local food bank. They will connect you with a local pantry where you can pick up some staples.
posted by zerobyproxy at 4:03 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Take them if you legally qualify. If this results in a larger income after schooling is complete, pay it back by donating to food banks later, or even directly to the government to pay down the debt.

Also think of it this way--stimulus for your local grocery store.
posted by stevis23 at 4:57 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, there were a lot more answers than I expected.... except almost everyone gave really good answers for why to take food stamps. What about the other side? The closest to a good rebuttal I read was "You're grad student broke, not real person poor."

Also, just because someone qualifies for a program, couldn't they still harm society by participating? Somehow? How would that work? What are the right-wingers saying about this topic?
posted by rebent at 5:25 AM on December 9, 2010


You shouldn't listen to what the right-wingers say about this topic, honestly.
posted by lydhre at 5:57 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think that if you legally qualify without lying or fudging then you should take them.

But I also think that there is a missing step that no one has suggested, which is shaming your school into providing you with more aid. If you do actually qualify for the food stamps, your first visit should be to the department chair (and above, depending on how your university is structured -- there should be a dean of graduate studies, something like that, who deals with these kinds of issues and has access to discretionary funds). You go in and tell them how much you love being at this school, how much you are learning, blah blah blah, BUT that things are financially difficult to the point that you just found out that you qualify for food stamps, so, could they increase your aid package?

This assumes that you've already been doing your part in applying for and asking for institutional support -- don't do this if you have been "too busy" to fill out any of the forms for financial aid, for example.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on December 9, 2010


Also, just because someone qualifies for a program, couldn't they still harm society by participating? Somehow? How would that work? What are the right-wingers saying about this topic?

They're saying that food stamp programs should not exist. For anyone, grad student, pregnant single mother or migrant worker. If you don't have the money you shouldn't be going to school, you should be working. If you still don't have money for food, you should not be eating. If you don't have health insurance, you should not get sick.

Don't concern yourself with what teabaggers think, because largely they don't. Ask youself if you should really be conerned with the tax policy advice of someone sitting on a Medicare-financed mobility scooter.
posted by T.D. Strange at 6:38 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


I say go for it, *if you qualify*. I haven't gone through the process, but I've researched my own eligibility and even as a full-time undergrad I may not qualify (my kid, soon to be 2nd kid and laid-off husband would, and the money for those 3 can stretch to cover me through cheap cooking skills). There seems like a lot of red tape to go through just to get them. WIC required a lot of paperwork, and that's only maybe $100 in benefits per month at the most.

I am on WIC right now and think the same way about being able to give it back through higher taxes once I graduate. The irritating part is "friends" passively-aggressively judging me for it by making fun of WIC or SNAP beneficiaries without calling me out by name, but I just shrug and move on because those people are also gigantic hypocrites who also receive other less-judged benefits, and some people are just hateful (they're not really close friends, obviously). I keep most of my benefits to myself to avoid judgment from others because it's really between me and the program that approved me. My son eats better because of it, and I do as well while I'm carrying this kid (and while I breastfeed), and that's what's important.
posted by kpht at 6:59 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I qualified for food stamps when I was in graduate school, but I didn't get them, because I didn't need them. I lived in a tiny studio apartment and didn't own a car, and I lived in a town where the cost of living was low, and I worked a part time job as well. I still had enough left over from my funding to live somewhat comfortably, but I surely didn't save any money.

I think you should take food stamps if you qualify and you need them. You have to decide for yourself what it means for you to need them. Personally, I think it matters what you're doing with the rest of your time and money. Another way that you might justify it is to ask yourself whether there is something that is particularly valuable, to someone other than yourself, about you being in graduate school on the public dime. One reason that it was easy for me to quit grad school is that I could see that my work and teaching wasn't any better and was probably worse than the next person in line for funding-and that I could get a job that would create actual dollar value out there in 'the real world', and that line of reasoning might apply to this.

But you can see how my position is a minority viewpoint. It might be helpful to think about some other cases that I know.

Slightly worse ethical case:
I had an ABD friend who purposely continued to apply for teaching jobs that he knew he wouldn't get, rather than use his connections to get an adjunct teaching job (a near certainty given his talents and network, if he had made the right calls), so that he could continue collecting California's generous unemployment benefits on his salary from his previous good one year job and have more time to work on his dissertation. I didn't think that was ethical at all. He's a generally pretty excellent and moral dude and I never brought it up with him because I felt strongly enough about it that I would have done it clumsily and I didn't want to risk our friendship, so I don't know how he justified it-he just brought it up to me as 'here is a thing that i'm doing' and I just said 'ok'.

Slightly better ethical case: I have friends in graduate school with children and they collect food stamps and that doesn't bother me even one tiny little bit-it would bother me if they didn't take food stamps, in fact.

Maybe the thrust of this is that if you can find a way to explain taking food stamps in a nonselfish way, that makes it better from my point of view? Like, if didn't take food stamps you couldn't stay in graduate school, and if you weren't in graduate school, you're sure that you couldn't find a job and you'd be a drain on society in some other way. Or, your work/teaching is really great and creates a lot more value than the next guy who could do it without taking food stamps. Or you have children to feed.
posted by Kwine at 7:05 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is completely ethical for anyone who qualifies for food stamps to apply honestly for them and receive them. I would rather pay for your food stamps now than your 50 prescriptions in a few years to control your numerous health problems that you got from eating shit on a shit budget. I think that food stamp eligible peoples would for the most part also rather have me subsidize their current and ongoing health rather than their future bodily degredation.

That judgement is completely separate from the fact that I (and I assume I am not alone) think that your choice to go to grad school, pay for it and go into povery, and assume that you will get a good job at the end (have you heard the news lately?) is foolish and lacking forethought. But I mean, you don't deserve to starve in a box on the street or only eat cheez doodles from the dollar store.

I personally collected unemployment while I was a full time student. To be eligible I had to prove that for at least a full calendar prior to filing the claim, I had worked full time (i think it had to be at least 36 hours a week) and was also a full time student. My tax documents and paystubs easily proved that so I collected the benefits, which I think was ethical because I qualified, had been paying into it for years, and it saved my mental health to get a friggin break.

If you take federal assistance, you pretty much sacrifice the right to complain about your federal taxes at any future point in your life. Your call, of course, whether that's a price worth paying.
posted by foursentences at 8:30 PM on December 8 [+] [!]


yea that. Taking benefits when you need them may actually make you a more generous person. I have no issues with paying taxes as long as it isn't causing me to be unable to support myself (have shelter, eat, transportation of some sort to get to work, little extra money for clothes, toiletries, basics). And honestly, I make under 35k and still have some wiggle room should Uncle Sam raise taxes to support social services as necessary.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:06 AM on December 9, 2010


* I collect unemployment as a full time undergrad
posted by WeekendJen at 7:10 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


just because someone qualifies for a program, couldn't they still harm society by participating? Somehow? How would that work? What are the right-wingers saying about this topic?

I am unclear if this is a thought experiemnt or if you wanted sensible answers to your question. If this is about a real human person who is hungry there isn't a strong "don't take food stamps" argument. If this is a thought experiment you might consider a few of these points. Note that I personally think these points do not have merit, but I believe in the food stamp program..

- there is a stigma associated with receiving government assistance that might be problematic for you in your future world/career [i.e. people see you on food stamps at the local store, think weird thoughts about you]
- you wind up on some government list as someone who received government assistance and that might be problematic for you in some future world where this sort of thing is looked down upon.
- you develop a skewed sense of entitlement and start abusing government programs because you like getting stuff for free
- you lose the sense of what things actually cost because you receive your food for free
- since you continue to be on the food stamp rolls you help create a false sense of the actual need for the program which expands instead of shrinks in the coming years
- you use up your lifetime food stamp eligibility when you weren't desperate and you then don't have them available when you are truly desperate [I think this one has some actual merit.]

The deal with food stamps in the US is that if you legitimately qualify, you can get them. There's not some other "oh and you have to be REALLY broke" aspect as far as the government thinks. You being on food stamps does not keep another person from being on food stamps. For you to believe that you would harm society by participating, you would have to also believe that the social safety net that is made up of food stamps and medicare and WIC and SSI/SSDI and other similar programs is in some way not the legitimate purpose of a society. I believe that one of the reasons you live in society is because you have some useful economies of scale that allow you to assist and support members who cannot support themselves either temporarily or permanently. That is what I call civilized. Other people disagree and I find their views distasteful.
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you can expect to make a lot of money after graduation, you're not poor in any meaningful sense.

I hate to knock anyone's dreams, but the asker is almost certainly going to remain poor after getting this graduate degree, regardless of what s/he "expects". The job market sucks out there and nobody's crystal ball is accurate enough to predict what it'll be like after graduation.

Don't be a fool: if you qualify for assistance take it. You're already going to regret the debt you have, don't add to it.
posted by exhilaration at 7:33 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Distinguishing between "grad student poor" and "real person poor", while understandable and based on something real, seems like it could kind of backfire and just make the whole idea of food stamps more shameful than it's supposed to be. If you qualify, you should be able to use them without it being a huge guilt trip.

By seeing it as something you cannot use unless you are "real person poor" you're strengthening the sense of shame or embarrassment that is tied in with applying for assistance at all. That leaves only a certain underclass that is already used to food stamps (because their parents used them or everyone in the neighborhood uses them) to take advantage of it, and anyone else, even when they're going through tough times, refuses to consider that option because they don't want to consider themselves "real person poor" but just middle class going through a rough patch...

So I agree, if the numbers add up (and like others have said, I'd warn that you may be surprised how broke you have to be to qualify), you shouldn't feel conflicted about accepting aid. That's what it's there for. Yes, you chose this path rather than being forced into it, but so can anyone else - and most won't, because being so low on funds that you're considering food stamps isn't everyone's thing. Don't feel guilty for accepting some tiny percentage of a penny of my taxes. In fact some might argue you have more right to it since you'll eventually be paying it back, so you're just borrowing from your future self (I am not actually arguing anyone has more or less right to help, just pointing that out).
posted by mdn at 7:54 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


It would be unethical say, if you live with your parents, don't bother looking for a job, but spend like you have one and you're on government assistance. Also, if you think you're better than a person from the ghettos, then your situation would be unethical. I have a friend whos on food stamps but meanwhile she is the most judgemental graduate I've ever seen with all the above traits. What she does is unethical. Do you feel you fit into that scenario?
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:02 AM on December 9, 2010


Think of food stamps as a subsidy for farmers too. It functions as one. If you use the money to buy healthy food, you are also helping the farmers that grow it.
posted by melissam at 8:06 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The argument for it being unethical is that food stamps are a needs-based qualification. If you do not truly have need, one can argue that it is wrong to take advantage of qualifying.

There is no free lunch. Food stamps are paid for by tax payers.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:19 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


- If you take food stamps, do they get denied to others? No.
- If you take food stamps, do I pay more taxes? Maybe, but considering that my taxes go to some pretty awful things like killing people in foreign countries, it's pretty trivial.
- If you take food stamps, who else benefits? Farmers, food producers.
posted by melissam at 9:28 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've moved on from grad student broke to real person poor:

The point of food stamps is to make it possible for people to feed themselves. It doesn't sound like you need help feeding yourself; it sounds like you want to want to use the program as a means of subsidizing your grad-school education.

To everyone who said that you qualify, end of discussion: it's impossible to set up a perfect large-scale program like this without having some errors on the margins. The fact of qualification speaks to the lawfulness of receiving the benefit, not the ethics of doing so.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:58 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


J Wilson, can you explain a little more what your argument is? Is there a specific set of criteria for ethically using food stams? Like, if you have $X at the end of the month after paying for all your bills and food, then you should go on them? Or, if you can work but choose not to, then .... etc?

And what if someone is working the best job they can find, but because they are paying for school / car loan / mortgage / health bills / trip to disney land / gambling debt, then using food stamps would be unethical?
posted by rebent at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2010


I think my claim is that if you're using food stamps to subsidize graduate school for yourself when you could (but choose not to) fully fund grad school on your own, then using food stamps is not the ethically superior option. By that logic, substituting trips to Disney Land or gambling debts would also pretty clearly be unethical. For me it might be a question of what seems reasonable/unreasonable in light of the purpose of the publicly funded program.

You're not going to get a certain answer as to the ethics of a situation, which is really a judgment call.

If you qualify, you're entitled to use the program. Whether you should depends on whether you feel comfortable doing so. This isn't like murdering your neighbor (or an Alaskan caribou) for entertainment-- there's no morally obligatory answer.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2010


I think my claim is that if you're using food stamps to subsidize graduate school for yourself when you could (but choose not to) fully fund grad school on your own, then using food stamps is not the ethically superior option. By that logic, substituting trips to Disney Land or gambling debts would also pretty clearly be unethical. For me it might be a question of what seems reasonable/unreasonable in light of the purpose of the publicly funded program.

Should families who can't afford food but are eligible to sign up for credit cards and who could, feasibly, pay for food that way, do so? What if their using food stamps gives them enough money to, say, send their children to extra after school tutoring?

The part where OP is obligated to take on debt to avoid using food stamps is what confuses me. It seems this reflects an unhealthy attitude in our society that those who qualify for public assistance shouldn't use it, but instead take on debt, even when the public assistance allows them to do things which better themselves and are likely to have a positive overall impact on society at large.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:36 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


You're not going to get a certain answer as to the ethics of a situation, which is really a judgment call.

This is pretty much what I feel, different people have different takes on whether it's morally appropriate to be on food stamps. You've seen a collection of different approaches in this thread.

Or, if you can work but choose not to, then .... etc?

I had a boyfriend once, way back when, who had a PhD and was having a hard time finding academic work. He was also a slacker and not in debt at the moment and so he decided to just spend some time working part time delivering pizza. That left him with a lot of free time to do things he enjoyed and left his income level [accurately reporting everything] at a point where he qualified for food stamps. While he was legitimately entitled to them, I did feel at the time that he was using them to support his slacker lifestyle. At the same time if he had been writing the Great American Novel, I don't know if I would have felt the same way.

There's some general sense that people in the US should be doing what they can to support themselves and be independent people. There are all sorts of exceptions to this from ones that most people find reasonable [being a parent where the other parent works and your job is to run the household and raise children] to ones that many people do not find reasonable [you had a disability and qualified for SSDI in the past, you have received some sort of rehabilitation such that you could hold down a job, but you keep getting SSDI instead because it's easier than getting a job] and there are generalized rules about how this works in society to try to keep most people from "breaking the rules" so to speak and allow the people who need the services to benefit from them. The only absolute rule is fill out the forms legitimately and see if you qualify.

However many people feel that there is an ethical topography that goes along with this that does not line up exactly with the legal topography. Sometimes in the law you'll see the "reasonable man" explanation... would some average person given these circumstances find these actions reasonable or not. Sometimes people refer to this sort of thing when they're facing ethical issues as well. I think you've seen from the responses in this thread that ethically most of the people responding see getting food stamps in the situation you've described as an ethical thing to do.

Since it's unclear what the specific situation is you are describing other than what you have presented, and you seem to be leaning a little hard on "how is this NOT ethical?" I'd suggest you include more information on what the actual problem is that you are trying to solve. Personal ethics on this topic vary, clearly, and there is going to be no ethical perspective that will be compelling to everyone. Perhaps you are trying to make some sort of compelling argument and are looking for good examples?
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on December 9, 2010


Jessamyn, I suppose I had two reasons for asking this question:

1) To find out what the arguments surrounding this issue are. I feel that the liberal position has been adequately defined, but I still think that no one has presented a compelling, logical counterargument. Perhaps there is not one, or perhaps it's just the leftest leanings of MeFi showing through. But, this is something I want to understand, not to make judgments about who is right and who is wrong, or to be persuaded one way or the other, but to understand both sides.

2) To find reasons to either feel better about having food stamps, or reasons to quit using them. This has been completed quite well, I think. I now do not feel bad about having used them for the past six months, nor do I feel like there is any reason to (perhaps because of the lack of answers to reason 1). The only compelling reason to stop using them that has made sense to me is because I might have to pay them back.

I don't really feel that my person situation has much to do with it, because I think rules should be applied to situations and not the other way around. The specific issues I brought up were partially from my situation, and partially to help others understand the specific types of answers I am looking for. However, if it helps any, my situation is as follows:

After graduating college with a BS, I lost my (on campus) job. I looked for work for a while, then gave up. When I ran completely out of money, I borrowed enough from friends to pay my bills, and signed up for food stamps. About six months after I got food stamps, I landed a job that pays around $11 an hour, and I work about 30 hours a week. This allows me to save about $300 a month (after expenses), most of which has been spent on paying back the money I borrowed from my friends. About three months after I got that job, I started grad school. The school offers very little financial assistance. My federal subsidized loans cover 98% of tuition and no more. Each professor in the department is given 1 assistantship that they can reward to any student they choose, and typically these are taken by PhD students. I am not a PhD student. Assuming that my close friends who are in my program were as hard-up as I am, I told them how they could apply for the "bridge card." The reply from one of them (who is a nice person, who I have never argued with before, and who I respect) was basically the "anti" view I stated in the original post. What she said made me feel like an idiot and dishonest and like I should not be taking advantage of a program that's really for "really poor" people, instead of "grad student poor" people. Thus, this question.

So, if that helps you elaborate your answers any, go for it :) But, I'm not really looking for "don't worry, you're fine" OR "you ass, what's your problem?" as an answer. I'm looking for explanations, reasons, logic, politics, etc.
posted by rebent at 12:01 PM on December 9, 2010


Jessamyn's example of a slacker pizza delivery guy is interesting and reminds me of another possibly useful analogy. In some divorce cases, the spouse ordered to pay spousal support may not choose to take a much lower paying job, esp. if it seems he's doing it to screw his spouse out of money. He has an obligation to his ex to maximize his income potential.

Maybe you feel you have an obligation to society to maximize your current income potential before you take food stamps? Maybe you feel food stamps should be reserved for people who have maximized their current income potential and yet don't have enough money to buy enough healthful food (making them "really poor" as opposed to "grad school poor"). If you are smart enough to be in grad school, you are probably smart and privileged enough to quit grad school and find a job that pays enough to get off food stamps.

The anti-tax, anti-intellectual argument may here begin: you are sucking on the public teat for no reason other than to satisfy your dilettantish intellectualism. Social spending is bad enough, but social spending as a means of subsidizing pointy-headed pursuits such as an unfunded masters program is unforgivable. My taxes shouldn't pay for your food stamps if all society gets is one more newly minded M.A. fattened on blocks of government cheese. America doesn't need any more grad students. The greatest living American, Sarah Palin, was never a grad student. The fact that the law allows full time dilettantes to get food stamps is an argument for reforming the excesses of liberal tax-and-spend programs, not a reason to partake in them. (Note: don't take any of that personally. I'm just trying to imagine what an anti-intellectual conservative would say to you, as requested).
posted by hhc5 at 2:00 PM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Absolutely ethical. You don't have to be destitute or living on peanut butter and saltines to qualify. You can be educated and paying your mortgage and have a car and still qualify legitimately. However, I think you can't have over $2000 in savings in most states.

I was on them at one point in my life. I wasn't "real poor" either (college educated white girl, could have borrowed from my parents) and it's possible I could have been considered a slacker at that point in my life (worked but only part-time, managed to get by on about $900 a month so I could do art projects and hang out with my friends. I was 22) But I qualified for food stamps, and 6 months later when I found a better job, I didn't qualify and that was that. I have many friends who have used them too during periods of underemployment or when they had young children. We weren't cheating the system, we just qualified.
posted by Rocket26 at 2:58 PM on December 9, 2010


I don't know where the idea is coming from that "don't do it" is a conservative position. I'm liberal, and IMO a perfectly good liberal objection is that taking a tax-funded benefit and using it to fund a person's MBA-equivalent degree regressively redistributes wealth.

No one is pro- or anti-tax in general. The liberal position favors progressive taxation; the conservative position favors regressive taxation.

In addition, I know a lot of current and former medical, law, and MBA students. Nearly all of them have taken out substantial loans, which is doable because it's personal investment in oneself. It seems like some people are making the assumption that it's bad for people in this position to take out loans -- why? Why should the public finance a degree that places a person in an elite financial position, no less through a program designed to redistribute wealth in the opposite direction?
posted by J. Wilson at 7:30 PM on December 9, 2010


I don't know where the idea is coming from that "don't do it" is a conservative position.

On the flipside, I've been defending the idea of her taking foodstamps and I'm definitely conservative.

No one is pro- or anti-tax in general. The liberal position favors progressive taxation; the conservative position favors regressive taxation.

As "new agrarian" or maybe a "crunchy con" I don't mind my taxes going to programs that benefit farmers, particularly since food stamps are a subsidy that allows consumers to support progressive farms, whereas most farm subsidies go to large monocultures. I also take the view that good food can be an important part of good health and preventative medicine, which can save our nation health care costs.

Taxes are here to stay, might as well do some good with them.

Why should the public finance a degree that places a person in an elite financial position, no less through a program designed to redistribute wealth in the opposite direction?

We don't know this. Plenty of people with posh degrees end up living in poverty, whether they chose it or not. Even if she doesn't, she will end up funding the program. To be regressive it has to take money more money from the bottom than the top as %...I don't see how this situation is regressive anyway.

The elephant in the room here is the sad fact that it's miserably hard for very hungry destitute people to get food stamps. We should fix this.

BTW if you do chose to get food stamps, prepare to go through an immensely humbling process. For me it involved waiting for hours, standing in line with people who just got out of jail for armed robbery, being asked invasive and personal questions, dealing with government employees that ask just like the TSA, and other fun stuff.
posted by melissam at 8:26 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a grad student who was also approved for food stamps, I also tackled this situation. Like you, I also worked and saw that food stamps would assist me in putting away some money. In the end, I opted out because I faced the same ethical question and felt that, while I needed it, there were plenty of other people who could use the money. I know that many people take advantage of the public programs available, but as a person who was raised to only "take what you absolutely need," I couldn't in good conscious take something that would just be considered as "extra" assistance.

Just as an fyi, I was also offered to be put on the healthcare program provided by my state because I did not earn enough money monthly. I did take that because, as a student and one who works part-time and is not offered health benefits by my employer, that was something I NEEDED since out of pocket health care is ridiculously expensive.
posted by penguingrl at 12:07 AM on December 10, 2010


I opted out because I faced the same ethical question and felt that, while I needed it, there were plenty of other people who could use the money.
This conclusion comes from an incorrect assumption about food stamps. You aren't taking food stamps away from someone else. Those plenty of other people can use the money, even as you do.

Maybe you feel you have an obligation to society to maximize your current income potential before you take food stamps?
I think the assumption is that she is increasing her maximum income potential by going to graduate school. That is probably the OP's assumption, otherwise she wouldn't be in graduate school, that's probably the assumption of whoever gave her the loans, and that's probably the assumption of whoever wrote the food stamps eligibility requirements.

I worked but only part-time, managed to get by on about $900 a month so I could do art projects and hang out with my friends. I was 22.
Again, the program has thought this through. This is why you get food stamps and not just a check. Because they know that kids and people and whoever are going to spend their money on other things. And they'd rather you have money to spend on healthful food, money that you can't spend on beer or whatever else. This is the choice that our legislators made in designing the program.

I don't think that there is an ethical argument against someone who qualifies for it from taking food stamps, unless there is some other circumstance where that person is behaving unethically, eg, lying on the application form or willfully and knowingly not doing their best for their life (the government has decided that going to graduate school counts as doing one's best).
posted by thebazilist at 7:58 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


An interesting recent article about food stamps and conservatives.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:53 PM on December 11, 2010


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