Personal Finance 
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Comments of the week, food costs edition

Readers were split on whether SNAP would cover their food costsLast week asked readers if we should continue this feature and got a positive response, so we decided we’d delve into the comments again.

This week we tackled a couple of controversial topics: SNAP, better known as food stamps, which was substantially cut starting Friday, and the rollout of the Obamacare exchanges, which has gotten off to a very rough start. Here were some of the best comments we got on those and other topics that offered a unique or helpful take.
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 Shopping 
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Your take: Could you live on food stamps?

Could your family make it on food stamps?Today the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, will take a fairly substantial hit, with the maximum benefit from a family of four falling from $668 to $632, amounting to $432 less per year in benefits. Overall, the cuts will shrink the average payout per meal from around $1.50 now down to about $1.40, according to CBS Moneywatch.


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 Frugal Living 
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Your Take: Could You Live Off Food Stamps?

Sean Callebs will try and he’s documenting the whole experience on CNN. This is a little more realistic than the $1 a day meal experiment, which was more about publicity than reality. What I find most interesting about Callebs’ reports is the insight it gives him and his readers. “… it stinks being hungry when you go to sleep.” (Feb 13th) How many people go to sleep hungry? I probably have only a handful of times in my life and it was mostly because of scheduling, not because I couldn’t afford it. I think that unless you have lived it, you can’t faithfully criticize.

Much like when I talked about living on minimum wage, it’s difficult to understand the lifestyle until you try to live it. For some, the thought of food stamps invokes the image of someone on welfare spending it on cigarettes and alcohol. For others, it’s seeing a bright light when you’re lost in the woods at midnight. Regardless of how you feel about food stamps, the majority of people who get food stamps need them. They’re not living the good life financially, sipping a Mai-tai on the beach; they’re struggling.

I find myself struggling with the idea of handouts because I believe, especially in America, you can, through hard work and determination, succeed regardless of where you start. Food stamps and welfare, while necessary, will give some a reason not to work as hard and I recognize that; but I think you have to accept those who will take advantage of the system if you want to help those who just need a little bit extra to get them over the hump.

What are your thoughts on food stamps and other welfare programs?

(Photo: pengrin)


 Personal Finance 
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How To Apply For Food Stamps

A recent New York Times article spotlighted how 28 million Americans may be receiving food stamps, the highest level since the start of the program in the 1960s, and I thought that, if eligible, it would be helpful to provide an understandable resource for folks so they knew how to apply. The USDA has a Food Stamp Program page but it’s not as clear about the application process.

Some statistics: the average monthly benefit was $86 per person and $200 per household in 2004. In 2005, the average gross monthly income per food stamp household was $648, so you get a good sense of who is eligible and who isn’t. To get a sense of what that means, if you were to extrapolate a per hour figure given full 52 week employment, $648 a month equates to $3.74 an hour if you work a 2080 hour year.

Determine Eligibility

The first step is to determine if you are eligible through the use of the FNS Food Stamp Program Eligibility Tool, which is strangely linked to an IP address. One word of advice about the tool, some states have special rules so the tool might say you’re not eligible but you might be eligible in your state. If the tool says you’re eligible, you’re in the clear. If not, contact your local food stamp office.

When you use the tool, it may send you to a state calculator or state food stamp website. For Maryland, it sent me to the Department of Human Resources homepage where I could access the Food Stamps eligibility tool (it’s a screening tool for all of the social services, including cash, medical, and temporary assistance). So, if you are re-routed to another tool, it’s best to go to your state tool to get the most accurate information.

If Eligible, Apply!

Since the tool is pretty quick, it’s best to check eligibility before you apply, though they say you can apply immediately. In Maryland, the application is estimated to take between twenty and forty-five minutes and is identical to applying in person. You might be wondering if you should apply for your state program or for the national program, it’s the same technically. The federal eligibility tool might have routed you to a state eligibility tool or it might have handled things itself, either way you need to apply at a state or county office. Each state will have its own form so you will need to find your local food stamp program office via their locator. After you find your office, it wouldn’t hurt to give them a call to clarify. It’s always tricky finding out how your local office, despite being an annex of a larger program, handles things; you’ll want to follow what the office says.

Some states will allow you to apply online, they are: Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Electronic Benefits Transfer Card

If you are certified to receive food stamp benefits, you’ll get an Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT card), a PIN, and instructions on how you can use it. You use it like a debit card and you can buy food and plants/seeds to grow food, and you can use it in any state, not just your own. You cannot use it to buy non-food items, alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, food to be eaten in the store, and hot foods. Some states still use paper coupons, though those are being phased out. If you lose your EBD card, call your state’s customer service number and they’ll reissue you one in 2-5 days.

If you have any more questions, the Food Stamp Program FAQ is quite comprehensive.


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