There’s an interesting story out of Louisiana:
and a follow-up: Jindal administration will pursue people who misused food stamps
Basically, the EBT system (which lets people buy products using SNAP funds) usually shows how much money is left on a person’s account when they check out and then debits the cost of their purchase, like with a normal debit or credit card. However, due to a technical difficulty with the system, for several hours Wal-marts across Louisiana wouldn’t check that people actually had enough funds in their account. (Other stores and other states were also affected.) Most stores either refused to accept SNAP during that period or they did emergency paper transactions with a limit of $50. Two stores, however, did the paper transactions without limits. They basically let people buy as much groceries as they wanted without having any way of checking that they atually had the money to pay for it. And some people in those areas took advantage, buying hundreds of dollars of food. (The average monthly benefit in Louisiana is only around $130, according to this report.) According to one noteworthy story mentioned in the article, a woman bought about $700 of groceries when she had fifty cents in her account.
Let’s get this out of the way: when you go to a store and select and “pay” for it, when you know that you’ll get to go through and there’s not actually money to cover it? That’s definitely wrong. I’m a little hesitant to call it theft since they carried their purchases out the front door and the store didn’t bother to stop them. Theft to me implies the person you’re defrauding actually minds what’s happening.
Let’s also be clear about who’s being robbed here, though. If they defrauded anyone, it’s Walmart, not the SNAP program, that was defrauded. If Walmart accepts EBT payment for $500 worth of groceries but there’s only $50 in the account, then Walmart is only getting $50 from the EBT program. Which raises the question why Walmart allowed those purchases to go through, when they were so obviously over the line of what anyone would have in their account. That $700 purchase I mentioned above? That woman was caught when the system came back online. Walmart told her she could go if she just left the groceries. They didn’t seem to particularly care. My guess is they either thought they’d recoup the money (from the government, by suing Xerox that runs their EBT system, etc.), or they thought it would be worse for their business in the long term than to turn these people away. It’s interesting how ready people in those links I included above, both in the comments section and the links themselves, were so ready to blame the shoppers as moochers and thieves without really asking: why was Wal-Mart so ready to let this happen? Regardless, I have every right to be ashamed my fellow citizens would act like this; I don’t have any right to think I was personally stolen from, directly or indirectly.
This isn’t either/or, by the way. Wal-Mart may have been stupid or thought it could cheat the system as well, without that getting the customers off the hook. But it’s telling just how ready some people are to vilify SNAPers. You see in the comments. In one particular gem, a commenter suggested SNAP be taken away from anyone who drank or smoke, which he explicitly separated out from buying those items using benefits (which out cashier system at the grocery store I worked out wouldn’t allow you to do) and being an alcoholic. This particular story does seem to feed into a certain… well, let’s just be nice and call it a stereotype.
I was also a bit intrigued by the assumption that this behavior is extreme, or unique to folks on SNAP. The Advocate piece I linked to above about how this wouldn’t actually cost tax-payers said of the situation, Wal-Mart’s policy apparently turned an October Saturday into Black Friday. For non-Americans, that’s the day after Thanksgiving when stores put on huge sales and things get crazy. Typically stores sell a very limited number high-end electronics like XBoxes and flat-screen TVs at ridiculously low prices. This leads to a mob mentality. People have been killed, and serious injury seems to happen pretty much every year. And yet it’s happening and will go on happening. It’s normal.
I think a lot of what’s going on here isn’t just the desire to acquire more stuff, but to game the system. We want to get a good deal but we also want to be king of the mountain.
Which I think is why I have a lot of sympathy for the SNAPers who acted this way. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, there should be penalties. But I think when you’ve had the whole system working against you your whole life and think there’s a chance to get all this stuff you couldn’t afford, to go home and be able to play Santa Claus to your kids because suddenly they’ll have all the cool food you can never afford, and it won’t actually cost you anything? Particularly if everyone else is doing? It can seem much more like Christmas come early than like what you might call stealing or even cheating. It’s the same reason people (and particularly poor people) buy lottery tickets: not that they’re bad at math, but that the hope for a life where you don’t have to worry about making ends meat can be tantalizing if you’re worn down by your inability to reach that level on your own.
I also suspect that’s a big part of why people are so upset over this, btw: they feel like they’re being cheated. And if there’s a special thrill in being King of the Mountain, there’s a special torture in being the sucker other people climb over in that race. I’m not 100% sure on this later point and certainly think there’s abuses in the system we should fight over.But I think it’s also worth asking, when we think about these situations, how much of those abuses are really and truly as bad as they seem? And how much are our own biases at play?
Given the movie about to be released, perhaps it’s worth remembering Haymitch’s words to Katniss in Catching Fire. So I’ll just close with that. Remember who the enemy is.