For Jamaisse Payne, the grocery store is a math problem. She’s got a baby boy due in a few weeks, so she says she’s shopping and eating for two. She walks up and down the aisles of the Redwood City Grocery Outlet, adding and subtracting prices in her head.
“I love math, I do ten percent, so I can budget, so that I don’t go over fifty dollars a week,” she says. “I’m probably gonna just do forty for now since I have a little food at home and the whole budget kinda slowing me down a little bit.” As she talks, she picks up a bag of whole wheat bread and eyes the price.
Payne is strict about buying food because she’s using CalFresh Benefits, better known as food stamps. She joined the program three years ago, after she ran away from home. She was seventeen.
“Food, money was a little hard for me and a friend of mine told me, don’t be so proud -- go to the welfare office and go get food stamps,” she says. “I had no idea what it was, but I didn’t like the idea of getting help from the government. But I did it.”
Now she gets fifty dollars a week to spend on food. She says it makes her life a lot easier.
“My stomach was gargling and grumbling every other day, so I was very happy to actually have some food in my stomach,” she says.
Back in 2009, the year before Payne applied for CalFresh, President Obama temporarily increased the amount of federal money for state food stamp programs. Americans were still feeling the effects of the recession, and the President felt they needed a boost. But on November 1st of this year, that increase expired. Payne noticed the change in her very next check.
“It was a lot less than what I originally got,” she says. “And I was wondering, wait, what happened to it? I’m on a plan, like my $50 a week plan to make that work, and I have to rearrange that.”
So, that’s what she does, even if it means skipping out on healthy meals.
“With less money I’m going to have to work with whatever lasts longer,” she says. “And if I can find a whole bunch of Top Ramen packets instead of bananas and apples then I’ll have to do that. I can eat less if I have to instead of eating so much.”
A widespread problem
There is no “average” recipient of food stamps. There are people like Payne, who work multiple jobs. Others are unemployed, elderly, or immigrants. The one thing that ties all these people together is their income -- more than 90 percent of food stamp benefits go to households below the poverty line. Altogether, the cuts have affected more than 47 million people. That’s one in every seven Americans.
“When you think about a five percent reduction in your grocery allocation, something goes away,” says Beverly Beasley Johnson, the director of the Human Services Agency in San Mateo County. It’s the agency that distributes CalFresh benefits, and the place where Payne first went for help.
“We’re currently serving about 30,000 residents but we believe that there are another 20,000 residents who are food insecure, who in fact may be hungry and who are not accessing the program for a variety of reasons,” she adds.
Reasons like the hassle and bureaucracy of filling out forms, or the welfare stereotypes that almost kept Jamaisse Payne out of Johnson’s office.
“People still have this perception that they are going to be humiliated that people are going to know that they’re receiving the benefit,” Johnson says.
San Mateo County, like the rest of the the Bay Area, presents people with a unique challenge: it’s one of the most expensive places you can live, but the benefits aren’t any higher than they are anywhere else in the country. Johnson says eligibility for CalFresh in San Mateo County is exactly the same as it would be in Mississippi. So a family of four in East Palo Alto may make too much money to qualify, even if the high cost of living means they’re struggling to make ends meet.
“In my world, San Mateo could see something that really reflected the difference in the cost to live in this community,” Johnson adds.
Making ends meet could become more difficult in the coming months. Congress is currently debating a bill that could cut the program by up to $40 billion. That’s eight times as much as this first cut. Advocates say the additional cuts will eliminate fraud and loopholes. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office disputes that, saying instances of fraud are less than three percent. One thing that’s known: losing that money would mean millions of people see their benefits severely reduced, or cut altogether.
An extra burden
Back in the Grocery Outlet checkout aisle, Jamaisse Payne is happy as she watches her bill come in way under budget. Tonight she’ll make strawberry shortcake with some berries she bought here and cake she got from a food bank. It’s a treat for herself, an indulgence she won’t allow after the baby arrives, and she takes maternity leave from her two jobs. She’s already thinking well into the future.
“As he gets older and as he starts to explore grabbing food off my plate, I was a little worried thinking about it, but maybe then I’ll be in a better situation and I won’t have to worry about food stamps ever,” she says. “But if that time does come and I’m still on food stamps maybe I’ll buy a lot more water, instead of food. Whatever I have to do to not rely on food so much.”