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TheRootDC
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Posted at 04:12 PM ET, 11/05/2012

Food stamps: Once associated with the poor, now commonly used among college students

President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney were both criticized throughout the election season for focusing their campaigns almost exclusively on middle class voters. The needs of the poor were rarely debated at length or in detail. When the issue was discussed by the candidates, it was more to criticize each other’s positions than to explain how they would actually help the poor.
(For The Washington Post)

Obama criticized Romney’s record of shutting down companies and putting people out of work. Romney blamed Obama for the record number of Americans now relying on food stamps.

Howard University sophomore Breanna Hogan takes on the food stamp issue, with a twist, in the article below. She reports on the increasing number of college students relying on food stamps. Subsequent student stories will tackle homelessness, poverty among women and children, and other social issues that were minimally addressed or ignored altogether by candidates Obama and Romney.

This campaign season, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s heated debates over who can best fix the economy has pushed the issue of food stamps into the national discourse.

Nearly 47 million Americans rely on federal food assistance benefits, a 12-year high attributed to the weak U.S. economy and high rates of unemployment over the last five years. Lesser known is that college students are among the increasing numbers of people relying on food stamps. As tuition rates have risen and financial aid has fallen — and parents who were once a source of financial support have lost jobs or homes and become ineligible for college loans for their children — students have had to fend for themselves.

Some college students now work two and three part-time jobs to cover living expenses and some of their tuition. They’re applying for more student loans and claiming financial independence on their tax forms to become eligible for financial aid that does not factor in parental contributions. They’re cutting corners by renting required textbooks instead of buying them or simply making due without some textbooks. They’re also bypassing expensive college meal plans and applying for food stamps, an option that once carried a social stigma on campus but no longer does now that food stamp usage is more commonplace at colleges around the country.

For instance, Virginia spent $447,000 in SNAP benefits for college students in January 2007 but by January of this year the total had risen to $2.9 million, according to the state’s Department of Social Services. The state spent $30 million in food assistance benefits to college students in 2011.

“I never thought I would be on food stamps as a student, but with this economy I had no choice,” said student Courtney Davis, a second year student at Howard University majoring in maternal health and childcare.

Although most people still use the term “food stamps” for the program that provides low-income families food payment assistance, the name was formally changed to SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Funds are now allocated electronically through an EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer, card instead of with paper vouchers that were used as cash.

Davis, 18, applied for SNAP benefits last July after loosing some financial aid and parental support. At one point she was bouncing from one friend’s couch to another, moving from dorm to dorm until finally securing university housing. She says, under the circumstances, survival would have been nearly impossible without SNAP.

“Even with the money I’m making from working 22 hours a week, I wouldn’t be able to afford tuition, living expenses and food,” she said.

Davis is not alone. At Howard University, where tuition increased by 13 percent this year, more and more students are openly discussing their use of the SNAP benefits.

“I didn’t realize so many students here were on food stamps, but it’s becoming a trend from what I’ve noticed,” said Darius Thomas, a junior who has been receiving $200 in benefits for over a year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP, does not track the number of college students participating in the program It breakdowns the number of participants by age but some states do keep track and have seen an increase in the number of college students relying on food stamps.

Student use of SNAP is not limited to regional or urban areas; students are using EBT cards across the country.

“I am receiving about $200 worth of food stamps per month, and I can’t imagine living without them,” said Sheena Vails, a sophomore at the University of Missouri who lives in an apartment with three other student SNAP participants.

During the second presidential debate Romney blamed President Obama for the weak economy that led to an additional 15 million people using food stamps since his term began. Republicans have dubbed Obama “the food stamp president” and Romney has campaigned on a platform that promises to cut federally funded programs such as SNAP.

But students seem less embarrassed about using food stamps now that many of their peers use them.

“When I was growing up, being on food stamps was frowned upon as it meant that your family was poor, but now that so many people have been forced to take advantage of it, it’s become socially acceptable,” said student British Fields, who also attends Howard, adding: “Without them, I simply would not eat.”

The increased food stamp use on college campuses has raised questions about whether students are abusing the program and applying less for need than as a means to save money.

Some states, concerned about student abuses, are cracking down by limiting eligibility requirements and strengthening the verification process. Last year, Michigan’s Department of Human Services kicked 30,000 students off the program and saved $75 million. Such efforts to crack down on potential fraud may end up hurting the students that are actually in need.

“While I don’t appreciate the program being abused by students who don’t really need them, I don’t think that cutting the program and placing restrictions on eligibility requirements are the answer, because that would eliminate many students who need the assistance, like me,” Fields said.

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By Breanna Hogan  |  04:12 PM ET, 11/05/2012

 
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