In Your Words: The Myth of “This Isn’t So Bad!”

One year ago, around the same time in September (Hunger Action Month), I was slouched over my desk in my downtown Washington, D.C., cubicle, grumbling to every coworker within earshot. My pantry shelves were nearly bare, and my stomach was complaining. Loudly. It was Friday of the 2011 SNAP Experience (like this year, I was participating from afar), and despite my best efforts, I’d seriously underestimated my appetite and overestimated my willpower. I was looking at a weekend of toast, spaghetti (but no sauce), and those waxy Red Delicious apples bred not for their stellar taste but for their uniform aesthetic. The next couple days looked bleak indeed.

But this year, my colleagues weren’t party to much whining. I’d put much more effort into buying food that would fill me up and last the whole week. On my last day of the 2012 SNAP Experience, I had toast and apple juice for breakfast, a banana and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a pollock filet and fresh green beans for dinner. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I’d been successful in keeping my commitment to eat only what I’d purchased, too. I hadn’t turned down any tempting banquet invites, but I’d declined plenty of after-work drink and dinner opportunities to stick to my budget. It seemed I’d exercised unprecedented restraint. Feeling a little smug, I’d thought to myself, “this isn’t so bad!”

But I’m really no superwoman of self-control. This week was not easy – staying within my $33 food budget (the average weekly SNAP benefit in D.C.) had proven challenging – but it seemed do-able because I’d had the game-changing advantage of a flexible non-food budget.

As the week wore on, I realized just how much energy it takes to resist dietary urges. The free Nutrigrain cereal bars at work and the smell of warm Quiznos on my walk home threatened my resolve. Homemade guacamole nearly broke me. At the same time, I enjoyed virtually no flexibility to choose among the foods I’d purchased for the week. So strictly portioned were my meals that I ate the same thing, in the same quantity, for breakfast and lunch every day for seven days. For dinner, I had my choice of fish and green beans (two days) or spaghetti and salad (five days).

By mid-week, I felt deeply tired from denying all those food cravings, and I desperately wanted to splurge, to feel renewed control over my spending and my choices. On Tuesday, I did finally open my wallet, just not for food. As luck would have it, my sister’s 21st birthday was Thursday. Due at least in part to my weakened powers of self-control, my sister received a Dooney & Bourke purse, a Calvin Klein scarf, and a glittery pair of earrings for her birthday. As much as I love her, I’d certainly spent more on her gift than I originally planned. And I’m convinced that extravagant assertion of my financial autonomy is what made sticking to my SNAP budget relatively easier.

In some ways, my experience did mirror that of a family who relies on SNAP. No matter who you are, research affirms that we spend a lot of time debating whether to eat or abstain. In their fascinating book Willpower, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney describe a self-control experiment carried out in Germany in 2010. Two hundred Germans wore beepers that went off seven times a day. Each time their beepers vibrated, the subjects reported any desires they were currently experiencing or experienced recently. Sifting through more than 10,000 momentary reports, researchers concluded that people spend one-fourth of their waking hours resisting their desires. The most popular desire will be obvious to anyone who participated in ACAA’s SNAP Experience. The urge to eat was more popular than any of the other commonly reported desires, including the desire to sleep, the desire for leisure, and the impulse for sexual activity.

But unlike in my imperfect poverty simulation, SNAP users are living in or near poverty, and are forced to restrict spending in all areas.  Researchers in a niche field of behavioral psychology help explain [PDF] how making budgetary decisions in a context of poverty is particularly taxing:

“Imagine packing for a trip, using either a small or large suitcase. If you have a large suitcase, it is an easy task to pack everything important with room to spare. You may even choose not to completely fill the suitcase. With a small suitcase, however, the task becomes much more complex. If not all important items will fit, you must consider trade-offs, such as what to take out if one more item is added. The suitcase can represent any resource, such as money. In that case, someone with ample resources can easily purchase all needed items with money left over. They may consider the wisdom and value of a particular small purchase, but are not likely to explicitly consider what other item must be given up in its place. In contrast, someone with limited funds must spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about what to purchase, as each item chosen means some other item or items is foregone. In other words, having fewer resources makes decision-making much more complex. Complex problems draw on limited cognitive resources, which in turn means that there are fewer resources available for self-control.” 

The SNAP Experience, then, is like trying to pack a large-sized suitcase with a too-small compartment for food but plenty of room for everything else. Participants like me were making difficult food shopping and consumption decisions (if I buy this meat, I can’t afford those vegetables; I can eat either these eggs or that banana), but they maintained the option to splurge in other areas, like birthday gifts, when their self-control reserves got too low or they wanted to make a spontaneous purchase just to remember what it felt like.

People living in poverty and receiving SNAP benefits also deal with the too-tiny food compartment (their low SNAP benefit level), but they can also pack away food in the remaining space (they could hypothetically spend money out-of-pocket to supplement their SNAP benefit). But their suitcase is so small that spending more on food means there’s less money left for rent, utilities, child care, transportation, health care, and a host of other necessities. The endless task of considering those much more complex trade-offs is exhausting. Difficult budgetary decisions tire people out, and—as we know after our own SNAP Experience—choosing among cheap and often unappetizing foods is a little dehumanizing, too. The Dooney & Bourke release valve isn’t really an option, and those families that do splurge anyway feel the damning financial effects almost immediately.

All this is to say that my SNAP Experience wasn’t a true experience of poverty—not by a long shot. I knew that when the going got tough in the grocery department, I could find other ways to exert choice. I could rent a movie from RedBox, buy a new blouse, take a taxi when the bus refused to show up, or even take a couple days off from work and take an impromptu weekend getaway. (I didn’t, but it sounds pretty good, right?) I may have been stuck with peanut butter sandwiches, but my consumer autonomy remained firmly intact.

This is no indictment of the SNAP Experience. Every poverty simulation is imperfect because it’s exactly that—pretend. It’s impossible to experience poverty unless you’re really in it for the long haul. But after my third SNAP Experience I have learned two important lessons: First, everyone, no matter her income, wants to feel financially autonomous. Second, the psychological effect of poverty makes sound decision-making incredibly difficult.

Caring for each other as friends, neighbors, and direct services providers requires that we all appreciate the messiness and frustration of poverty. It’s not as easy as cutting the fat or tightening the belt. Heroic personal responsibility won’t make high-stakes financial trade-offs any easier. As voters in a representative democracy, we must also work to identify leaders and spokespeople who truly get it. A debate on SNAP benefit levels is about hunger and health, sure, but it’s also about how we hope people with limited resources will participate in the economy and how we can ease the financial and mental strain of poverty to enable people to make the best decisions possible. SNAP could be a tool for this kind of empowerment, but $33 per week in D.C. (or $29 in Arizona) won’t get the job done. Together, let’s elevate the conversation about this important program and work to weave a social safety net that doesn’t just catch us when we fall, but makes it easier to make the long climb back up.

- Marie, former ACAA Hunger Fellow

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