These small changes would mean a great deal to America’s poor families

A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer’s market in Topsham, Maine. SNAP’s guidelines could easily be reformed to allow low-income families to use their food stamp money for personal hygiene items and common household goods.
A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer’s market in Topsham, Maine. SNAP’s guidelines could easily be reformed to allow low-income families to use their food stamp money for personal hygiene items and common household goods. Associated Press file

It wasn’t much – just five bucks apiece – but both boys’ eyes sparkled when Carol Moore told them they could spend it on anything they wanted. “Meet me back here in 10 minutes,” Moore told the boys, whom she’d met a few months ago when they came to her church’s homeless shelter. As the boys set out into the aisles of Walmart, she called after them, “Just get something you really want, OK?”

Ten minutes later, they came back and held out their treasure.

It was deodorant.

“You can’t buy deodorant with food stamps, so when these two boys – they were maybe 13, 14 years old – finally had a little money of their own to spend on something they really wanted, that’s what they bought,” Moore told me, tearing up at the memory. “It broke my heart.”

On paper, being unable to buy non-food items with food stamps sounds logical; after all, they’re called food stamps (and the “N” in SNAP, the new acronym, stands for “nutritional”). In practice, though, the restriction means that two middle-school boys spent their only pocket money in months on deodorant, and food pantries nationwide find themselves distributing toothpaste and toilet paper to families who struggle to afford them any other way. But SNAP’s guidelines could easily be reformed to allow low-income families to use their SNAP money for personal hygiene items and common household goods. After all, federal authorities are always tweaking SNAP’s internal workings.

Household goods

When we talk about fighting poverty, we often talk in terms of vast challenges and sweeping solutions. Indeed, such comprehensive ideas and initiatives are needed. But the lives of financially strapped families are made unnecessarily difficult by small obstacles as well as big ones, and in some cases, fixing the small obstacle is both fairly easy and hugely effective. Little tweaks – from loosening restrictions on SNAP purchases to include personal hygiene and other household goods to allowing organizations to take food to poor rural children, to adding small workarounds for 911 calls in troubled areas – can have an outsized impact, reducing the barriers that make living in poverty even harder than it has to be.

Consider this scene from last summer: There was no tinkly music, just the crunch of gravel under the van’s tires, but the kids came running as if it were an ice-cream truck – bounding down steps, jostling in line, then marching back to their mobile homes with precious cargo they couldn’t wait to eat.

It wasn’t ice cream, though. It was lunch.

In theory, every kid in a high-poverty community has access to lunch in the summer. Nonprofit and faith-based organizations nationwide can set up summer lunch programs for low-income kids with federal funding, thanks to a public-private partnership set up in 1975.

But a weird quirk in the law requires that the children eat the lunches on site – which has always worked well for urban community centers eager to attract kids to their summer enrichment programs but poses a huge barrier for rural communities. Less than a fifth of the low-income children eligible for summer lunch in the United States actually receive it.

“There was a church in Arkansas that was so excited about setting up a meal site to serve these kids – they knew there was so much need – but they closed after a couple of weeks because only one or two kids could get there,” says Lucy Melcher, director of advocacy and government relations for the D.C.-based nonprofit No Kid Hungry. “They even knew where the kids lived, but they weren’t allowed to take the food to them.”

On-site eating rule

Simply changing the rule of eating on-site could have a tremendous impact, allowing more creative options such as having parents pick up meals at a central location to be eaten later, or a Meals-on-Wheels-style delivery like the program that No Kid Hungry piloted last summer. “The kids were so, so grateful. It was incredible. They had never received lunch in the summer,” says Melcher, who rode along for meal delivery last July.

Another small change with potentially dramatic impact could help low-income families in a different way: by helping them keep a roof over their heads in times of trouble.

When a man forced his way into her apartment and stabbed her in the neck with a large shard of glass, Lakisha Briggs needed the police and she needed them fast. But an obscure law made the 34-year-old terrified to even pick up the phone.

Like many cities, Briggs’s home town of Norristown, Pennsylvania, had an ordinance stating that tenants who received 911 assistance at their residences too many times within a certain period could be evicted for “disorderly behavior.” It was a well-intentioned law aimed at curbing crime, but unfortunately, it had a flaw: It didn’t differentiate between perpetrator and victim. If the police came to a residence for any reason – even to protect the tenant from an intruder or criminal who didn’t live there – that counted as a strike against the tenant.

Briggs had already needed police protection from her estranged boyfriend three times, so when he came back a fourth time, slammed a glass ashtray into her head and stabbed her with a piece of it, she faced a terrifying, impossible choice: Lie on the floor bleeding, hoping he wouldn’t kill her, or lose her home. She held out as long as she could, but a neighbor finally called 911, and Briggs – unconscious by this time – was airlifted to the hospital.

Three days later, directed by the city, her landlord started eviction proceedings.

Fortunately, Briggs, backed by the ACLU, fought the eviction and won, and the town subsequently repealed the ordinance. But most stories don’t end this way. Across the country in hundreds of other towns with similar ordinances, thousands of low-income women face the same stark choice.

Housing Catch-22

Eviction doesn’t just mean losing a particular apartment or home: For a low-income family, it means losing the ability to rent any home at all, because being evicted means losing their housing subsidy, and once they lose it, they go to the back of the line to wait for another one, a wait that in many cities lasts for years.

The good news is, this frightening Catch-22 isn’t that hard to fix. By carving out exceptions in these ordinances for 911 calls where the tenant is the victim, towns and cities can keep their ordinances while protecting the right of domestic violence survivors and other crime victims to call the police when needed, said Kate Walz, director of housing justice and litigation at the Chicago-based Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, in an interview. Several states have passed laws requiring such carve-outs, and more are considering them – a small change that should go a long way toward keeping low-income women and their families feeling safer at home.

Poverty is a complex issue that demands solutions both large and small, but sometimes modest tweaks – nixing an obscure rule about kids’ summer lunches, modifying an unintentionally damaging housing ordinance, or adjusting SNAP purchasing guidelines to include just a couple more aisles in the grocery store – can get us further than we may think.

Weese is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati.