Each week, I spend an hour and a half helping fill bags with frozen meat, cans of soup, boxes of mac and cheese, and handfuls of fruit for clients at my agency on Chicago’s North Side. For many of the clients at my food pantry internship, this limited assistance is the difference between unbearable hunger and just being able to scrape by.
Now, I’m worried I’ll see busier pantry days. In December, the US Department of Agriculture approved new rules that will require able-bodied adults without children to work 20 hours a week, or participate in a job-search program, in order to receive SNAP benefits. This is expected to remove 700,000 people from the federal food stamp program. Many social service organizations are already feeling the strain as more people seek services due to the triple whammy of low wages, rising rents, and a stream of cuts to social welfare programs. My concern isn’t just for my clients: I know firsthand how cruel this change in policy is. As a graduate student in social work, I have experienced it personally.
So much of our public discourse about SNAP misses the mark because we only see one facet of the hunger crisis in America. When the argument about who “deserves” financial assistance in order to eat — something we must all do to live — is framed as “lazy slacker living off the system” versus the “deserving poor,” we forget all the invisible people in the middle of this spectrum of stereotypes: the teacher who has a second job just to make ends meet, the newspaper reporter with an overdrawn bank account, or the social work intern who only got a decent winter coat because her friends and synagogue raised the money.
These are people who do vital work in our society, yet they are often compensated very little and face food insecurity as a result. While many of these people might meet the new work requirements, they could lose benefits in the future if policymakers continue to go down this path of restricting SNAP eligibility by increasing qualifying criteria.
Then there are the part-time social services workers — graduate students like myself — who could be disqualified from SNAP. In 2017, I enrolled at my local community college so I could take social science classes in order to gain admission to a master of social work program. I was working 15 hours a week at an after-school program and barely managing to pay my rent and bills on time. Shortly after the beginning of the semester, I received a worrying notice from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: My SNAP benefits would be eliminated if I did not work at least 20 hours a week.
When I called my caseworker to explain my situation, I got a disheartening response: I did not meet the limited eligibility requirements for college students to receive SNAP — which include working 20 hours a week and/or caring for dependents, or receiving other types of assistance — and my benefits would be cut. My desire to get more education so I could enroll in graduate school left me scrambling to figure out how to replace $160 in my already disastrous monthly budget. I still do not qualify for SNAP now as a graduate student (my current internship is unpaid), so I am back doing that awkward dance of trying to navigate a messy patchwork of food and nutrition resources.
Even more complicated is having to contend with the contradictory norms and codes of ethics of the social work profession that interfere with needing assistance. A Seattle social worker recently posted on the popular /r/legaladvice subreddit that her boss threatened to fire her because some of her clients saw her receiving services at the local food bank they frequent. In her post, she stated that she makes $29,000 a year, and that she and her husband live paycheck to paycheck. Her boss was concerned that she was “gaming the system” by using community resources for her family during a financial crisis and that it was unethical for her to be going to the same food pantries she refers clients to (which she points out are “pretty much all of them in the city”).
I ran into this ethical dilemma when I faced a major financial crisis near the end of the semester, just as it was starting to get cold in Chicago, and i badly needed a winter coat. A friend earnestly suggested I contact a popular social service agency in my area. It was the same one many of my clients go to, funded in part by my agency’s parent organization. What if I ran into a client? Would this be a conflict of interest?
My colleague Alex Kelley, a social worker and community organizer based in Michigan, shares my concerns and frustrations. “There’s a fundamental misinterpretation in prohibiting social workers from seeking services themselves. In many communities, the same risks happen at grocery stores, doctor’s offices, etc. If risks to confidentiality can be mitigated there, they can be mitigated at a food bank,” he said.
Samantha Greene, a licensed clinical social worker working independently in Texas, mentioned how location can also exacerbate these conflicts. “In rural communities, where resources tend to be less, this puts an extra strain on social workers who may find themselves needing a service only provided by one entity in the area.”
Economic insecurity among social service workers is one of those things people talk about at length privately, but the profession fails to address it publicly. Fellow social workers in the field talk about how low wages have personally impacted them, or how their coworkers are all independently wealthy “because how else could you afford to work here with this salary.” The median social work salary in 2018 was $49,470, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which includes high-income regions such as the Bay Area. We also can’t forget that most agencies, hospitals, and clinics rely on social work interns who get paid nothing to provide vital services to clients and communities.
(Unfortunately, there is no research or data devoted to SNAP enrollment among social workers, or financial backgrounds of social workers or social work students. It’s almost as though the entire field has built its own wall of silence around this issue.)
In his essay “Social Services or Social Change?” writer, activist, and violence prevention specialist Paul Kivel described how social service workers are designed to be a “buffer zone” between poor people and those who control unjust systems. Creating a field of professionals to be that barrier prevents social workers and clients from seeing how much they have in common with each other — and how politically aligned they could be. Establishing and respecting appropriate boundaries is important to keep both social workers and clients safe, but the social work field must also contend with these broader issues within the profession.
We need to rethink why our state and federal policies around programs like SNAP are designed to subdivide recipients based on completely ridiculous standards of “deservingness.” We need to be willing to confront the complex web of social, cultural, and political attitudes that motivate this cruelty and exacerbate our nation’s failure to end hunger for all. Before making judgments about SNAP recipients, consider that the person in front of you buying their groceries with SNAP could be someone working to make these programs better.
Elena Gormley is a master of social work candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. Her work can also be found on Vice, Alma, JTA, and Jewish Currents.