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Map showing percent of people on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in each state.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a town where one-third of the population receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, or food stamps), is on a "monthly boom-and-bust cycle," as an excellent Washington Post article by Eli Saslow describes it. On the first of every month, 13,752 people in town get their SNAP benefits—Rhode Island doesn't stagger benefits across multiple days as some states do—and the grocery stores stock up with food and fill up with customers, employing added part-time workers in the process. It's also a boom-and-bust cycle in the lives of the recipients, who face empty shelves by the end of the month.

Families who've scraped by until the last days of the month, eating a more and more restricted diet even if they're not starving, flood Woonsocket's stores on the first. At one grocery store:

Pichardo had placed a $10,000 product order to satisfy his diverse customers, half of them white, a quarter Hispanic, 15 percent African American, plus a dozen immigrant populations drawn to Woonsocket by the promise of cheap housing. He had ordered 150 pounds of the tenderloin steak favored by the newly poor, still clinging to old habits; and 200 cases of chicken gizzards for the inter-generationally poor, savvy enough to spot a deal at less than $2 a pound. He had bought pizza pockets for the working poor and plantains for the immigrant poor. He had stocked up on East African marinades, Spanish rice, Cuban snacks and Mexican fruit juice.
The town has added a bus route to the cheapest grocery store in town, but been forced to restrict the number of shopping bags people can carry on the bus due to overcrowding on the first of the month. Part-time grocery workers—many on SNAP themselves—get added hours preparing for and handling the rush. Then there's the boom-and-bust in the homes of recipient grocery store workers themselves:
Rebecka and Jourie Ortiz usually ran out of milk first, after about three weeks. Next went juice, fresh produce, cereal, meat and eggs. By the 27th or 28th, Rebecka, 21, was often making a dish she referred to in front of the kids as “rice-a-roni,” even though she and Jourie called it “rice-a-whatever.” It was boiled noodles with canned vegetables and beans. “Enough salt and hot sauce can make anything good,” she said.
But not good enough that when she goes shopping on the first of the month, bringing her young daughters, they don't desperately want all the snack foods the stores have laid out to entice impulse buys.

Republican legislators would say—do say, all the time—that the problem is the number of people on food stamps, not the fact that such a high number, many of them working, need the aid. They'd say that families on SNAP should budget better, because they don't know what it's like to reach the end of the month and be considering whether to eat that last piece of string cheese now or later, to have been feeding their kids noodles and canned vegetables and hot sauce for days, to have been going to food pantries for extra help, to have been making and remaking a grocery list for days, thinking through all the things they will feed their kids soon but can't now because it's the third-to-last day of the month, not the first or second. And they'd say all those things while asking us to ignore that it's not just a few families who need nutrition assistance, and not just a few of those who have trouble making the benefits last to the end of the month. When you have states where 20 percent of the residents need nutrition assistance and towns where more than 30 percent do, it's a structural problem, not an individual one. And that's not something that can be answered by blaming vulnerable families and making more cuts.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Mon Mar 18, 2013 at 09:52 AM PDT.

Also republished by Hunger in America, Invisible People, and Daily Kos.

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