The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What my grandmother would have said about Trump’s food stamp proposal

My grandmother ultimately decided to forgo financial support from the state, including receiving food stamps, because of the way she said she was treated. Big Mama said she didn’t like the way the social worker questioned her homeownership. The implication was that if you’re asking for help you shouldn’t own anything. (Seth Wenig/AP)

The state welfare worker visited my grandmother’s home just once.

My grandmother, or Big Mama as we called her, was a proud woman who worked at a backbreaking job as a nursing assistant in a hospital earning a low wage. She found herself being interviewed because she had volunteered to take in my four siblings and me. Had my grandmother not stepped in, we would have been placed in foster care. Our parents had abandoned us and were not providing any financial support.

My grandmother ultimately decided to forgo financial aid from the state, including food stamps, because of the way she said she was treated. She did apply for and received medical assistance through Medicaid.

Read: I spent my childhood on Medicaid, and Trump’s plan to roll it back is disastrous

Big Mama said she didn’t complete the application for welfare because of the way the social worker questioned her homeownership. The implication was that if you’re asking for help, you shouldn’t own anything. My grandmother said she was warned that if she kept more than a small amount of money in the bank, the benefits she would receive could be terminated.

But it was my grandmother’s savings that helped keep food on the table when my grandfather drank up his paycheck. Her home was her pride and joy, and she sometimes made extra payments on the loan principal so that she could get rid of that “devil debt,” as she put it. She didn’t want to take a mortgage into retirement.

In Big Mama’s words, the government wanted needy families to be “dirt poor” before giving them a hand up. So she decided to struggle at times rather than subject herself and us to the contempt and indignity those in need often experience.

A recent proposed change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, made me think of my grandmother and the many people who are left to feel less than for being in the position of needing financial assistance.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new rules Tuesday to limit access to food stamps for households with savings and other assets, a measure that officials said could cut benefits to about 3 million people,” reported Laura Reiley, a business of food reporter for The Washington Post.

The rule would end automatic eligibility for those who were already receiving federal and state assistance, Reiley writes.

“Current rules give states latitude to raise SNAP income eligibility limits so that low-income families with housing and child care costs that consume a sizable share of their income can continue to receive help affording adequate food,” according to Reiley. “This option also allows states to adopt less restrictive asset tests so that families, seniors and people with a disability can have modest savings or own their own home without losing SNAP benefits.”

For its part, the Trump administration says it’s trying to prevent people from taking advantage of eligibility guidelines.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint.”

Under the proposal, to be automatically eligible for SNAP, a household must receive cash or noncash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program valued at a minimum of $50 per month for at least six months. The noncash benefits that qualify for automatic eligibility would include programs that support work such as subsidized employment or child care.

Critics of the rule change argue it will make it more difficult for families to receive needed assistance.

“The majority of states deem people eligible for SNAP benefits if they benefit from other government safety net programs. The reason? Many people who could receive them do not file for them, something experts attribute to a combination of lack of knowledge, inability or unwillingness to navigate the sometimes daunting bureaucracy, and shame over needing them at all,” Helaine Olen, a contributor to Post Opinions points out. “Allowing people to receive benefits automatically minus an asset check is a way of getting around that problem. It also encourages low-income people to save, something just about everyone agrees is a good thing.”

Read: Billionaires and millionaires against food stamps

My grandmother has passed away but based on her experience I know she would be critical of what the Trump administration wants to do. Make no mistake this proposed rule change is an attack on our nation’s most vulnerable population.

“Instead of punishing working families if they work more hours or penalizing seniors and people with disabilities who save for emergencies, the president should seek to assist them with policies that help them afford the basics and save for the future,” Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told The Post.

Read: Trump proposal would push 3 million Americans off food stamps

“This is a story about government and budgets and bureaucracy, but it’s also a story about philosophy,” wrote Paul Waldman, an opinion writer for The Post’s Plum Line blog. “One way to think about it is to ask this question: Which makes you angrier, a child going hungry, or someone getting a government benefit who might be able to do without it? If you’re a Republican, the answer is almost certainly the latter. In fact, you’d probably be happy to take benefits away from a hundred or a thousand people who need them — or maybe even 3.1 million — if it meant that just one person gaming the system could be stopped.”

Waldman goes on to write, “That’s not to say that Republicans actually want kids to go hungry any more than Democrats want people to game the system and get benefits they don’t need. But there’s a basic difference in what they see as an urgent problem and what they’re willing to live with to solve that problem.”

Read: Trump’s new food stamp proposal weaponizes government against poor people

There is no indication of widespread abuse in the food stamp program. Rather, in my experience, many people are embarrassed to even ask for help.

I had to persuade a mother to apply for food stamps after her husband left her and their three children with no support just as she lost her job when the nonprofit group she was working for downsized. She had always been self-sufficient. She cried at my suggestion that she get food stamps after her savings ran out. She finally applied and received $50 a month. This hard-working mother eventually found a great job that enabled her to return to supporting her family without government assistance.

Frankly, I find it cruelly ironic that this administration is seeking this change when President Trump has spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money to play golf on his own courses enriching his own bank account. Why don’t we close that loophole?

Read: How money flows from campaign donors into Trump’s pocket

The 60-day public comment period for this proposed rule is now open. Click this link to leave your comment. And when you do, I hope you consider how the recommended reform might leave less food on the table for a lot of people in need.

Read more:

I wrote about being a child on Medicaid. A reader called me the n-word.

Your friend has no place to live and $150,000 in student loans. Should you let her move in with you?

Will Social Security be around when I’m ready to retire?

Color of Money Question of the Week

What do you think of the proposal to change the eligibility rules for food stamps? Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Food Stamps.”

Live Chat Today

I’m live every Thursday at noon to take your personal finance questions. This week, I’ll be joined by Cameron Huddleston, author of this month’s Color of Money Book Club pick, which is “Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.”

Here’s the review: Talking to mom and dad about their money isn’t easy. But don’t wait until it’s too late

To join the discussion or read the transcript after it’s over click this link.

Community college graduates speak out

Following a recent column and newsletter on the merits of a community college education, I said I wanted to hear from graduates about their experiences.

Community college should be a first choice, not a last resort

Don’t be embarrassed about going to community college. Put it on your résumé.

The response has been overwhelming and a great testament to the importance community colleges have in helping people get training and a college education.

Sylwia Szczepanek of Los Angeles attended Montgomery College in Maryland. At the community college, she took business administration classes in the school’s Macklin Business Institute (MBI) Honors Program.

“I immigrated to the U.S. in the Fall of 2006 and started at Montgomery College in the Fall of 2007 as an F1 Visa student,” Szczepanek wrote. “Fast forward to 2012 when I got accepted into the MBA program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in DC. In the end, I always proudly display Montgomery College on my résumé even though I could skip ahead straight to Hopkins MBA. If I could go back in time and start over again, I would pick MC in a heartbeat! Best choice ever!”

Here’s more praise from a few more Montgomery graduates with very impressive careers.

Mahlon Anderson of West Virginia wrote, “Thank you for focusing on community colleges. I think their story is one of the most under-told and undersold in all of education. Although I have recently retired to West Virginia, I have a near lifelong affiliation with Montgomery College (MC), and am a second-generation graduate. My mom received her degree in medical technology from the Takoma Park campus in about 1960. I received my Associates there in about 1971. I received a tremendous education there — at rock-bottom costs — that prepared me well for my continuing academic career at the University of Maryland (BS) and MS from American University. At MC, shortly after arriving, I was named editor of the weekly college paper, the Spur, which put me on a career course in journalism, and led directly to my purchase of a weekly newspaper in Montgomery County (The County Courier) just two years after graduating from Maryland. A few years later, I returned to the college and worked for four years in the Office of the President, which also led directly to my later appointment as press secretary and director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Education. I also became an adjunct professor, teaching journalism writing there for several semesters. The college subsequently honored me as an outstanding alumnus, and I later served for a couple of years as president of the alumni association. It’s hard to imagine how any institution could have had a more positive and lasting impact and relationship with someone than MC has had with me — and my family.”

Manjula Dissanayake of Gaithersburg, Md., wrote, “My story was actually captured by the Montgomery College Alumni Magazine two years ago which explains the impact it had on both my personal and professional journey for the past 15 plus years. The grounding and opportunities I had at Montgomery College, as an international student arriving directly from Sri Lanka at the age of 19, defined my professional path going from an investment banker to becoming a social entrepreneur today.”

“For someone who moved to the United States at the age of 18 by herself, attending a four-year-university was not an option,” wrote Dena Bassiri of Rockville, Md. “Experiencing all the difficulties that immigrants face, I found my way to start my education at Montgomery College. It was affordable, and a great way for me to adapt to the U.S. educational system. I am starting my third year of education at the University of Maryland, studying my desired major, and it wouldn’t have been possible without starting from a community college.”

Bob Bihler of Sequim, Wash., wrote, “High school just wasn’t my thing. I had an okay GPA, an okay SAT score, and scant guidance about my choices post-high school. So I was essentially on my own fumbling through the admissions process. Frustrating to say the least, and despite my naive approach, I was accepted at several California State universities. My local community college was Diablo Valley College (DVC) in Pleasant Hill, Calif. My years at DVC provided me with a firm education and dare I say a life foundation for being a competitive and successful student. I got my BA, eventually received an MBA (as a working adult), and even an executive level certificate from Stanford. Looking back I’m convinced my life would be very different from what it is today had I not made that decision to attend the local community college. And, over the decades I’ve seen this angst and concern about community college with friends and workmates. They’ve got to get shining star son/daughter into some well-known and impressive university. And many times those bright shining stars at the local high school just don’t have the chops to find his/her groove at the ‘big’ university. It’s okay. Go to the local community college, get your basics out of the way and go try again. And isn’t it grand to live in a country where there are so many local institutions of learning with the goal of helping you succeed!”

Russell Burdick of Hudson, Mass., listed eight reasons he attended community college. Here’s his list (I love the last one):

1. Neither my family nor I could afford to pay for me to attend a four-year school.

2. It was known you could transfer to a four-year school to complete your degree.

3. My older brother went to community college and then on to a four-year school.

4. Other kids in my neighborhood went to community college and then to four-year schools.

5. I wanted to be an engineer but didn't know which kind of engineer to be.

6. I was unsure of my academic ability to maintain myself at a four-year school.

7. The tuition was about one-fifth of four-year public schools and about one-tenth of private schools.

8. I was able to stay at home and eat mom's cooking.

Heather Adams of California wrote, “I was an actress for 20 years and found my professional purpose/calling at community college! Now I have a doctorate and oversee the Transfer Student Center at UCLA!”

For background, Adams, under her maiden name Heather Stephens, appeared on numerous television shows, including “Baywatch,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Forgotten.”

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