Editor’s Note: Clara Moore worked as a chef, food writer and food educator before deciding to change careers and study anti-poverty policy. She is pursuing a master’s degree at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m a professionally trained chef. I’ve published a book, been profiled in several newspapers and even appeared briefly on a Bravo cooking competition show. Until a few years ago, I even co-owned a restaurant in St. Louis.
I’ve also been a recipient of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) in three states.
Did that last part catch you off guard?
If you’re surprised that I’ve received SNAP – if it doesn’t fit the image you had in mind – that’s part of the problem. SNAP helps more than 40 million people buy groceries and feed their families, yet so many of us act like this program couldn’t possibly impact us or anyone we know.
The narrative surrounding federal assistance is not only ugly, but it ignores the systemic causes of poverty: These people must not be trying hard enough. They’re lazy. They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
It doesn’t matter that the narrative is false when it’s so pervasive. We see it everywhere: in pop culture, the media and even in policymaking.
For example, so-called “work requirements” – which take away assistance like food and medical care from those struggling to find consistent work – dominated the national conversation this year.
But the faulty assumption lurking behind work requirements is that able-bodied adults on assistance programs aren’t working. The truth is 52% of able-bodied adults on SNAP work within a typical month. If you count households with children, that number rises to 65%. And close to two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly or people with disabilities.
So, the idea that people on SNAP aren’t working isn’t true statistically, and it certainly wasn’t true for me.
I grew up in Missouri and struck out on my own at age 17. My family worked in restaurants, so pursuing a career as a chef seemed like a smart option: It was flexible, creative and would provide me with skills I could use anywhere.
At age 20 I went to culinary school, worked incredibly hard, and a few years later was hired as the executive chef at a newly opened café in St. Louis. We soon expanded, and I even became partial owner.
After years of nonstop hustling, I had finally made a name for myself and was enjoying some success. But the work was grueling, and I was quickly burning out. My partner (who also worked in the restaurant industry) wanted to go back to school and was accepted to a program in Washington state. We decided it was a great opportunity and moved. After all, I had transferable skills I could use anywhere, right?
I worked with a catering company in Seattle and even opened a prepared food business at the local farmers’ market. But the profit margins were slim, and the city was expensive. So, we decided to move again, this time to Maine, where the cost of living was lower, and I could go back to school. But before we left, we decided to get pregnant. Suddenly, our situation took on a different level of urgency. I could continue to hustle with 14-hour days, and skip meals if I had to, but not while growing a new human. That was when I first applied for SNAP.
Here’s what I’ve discovered: You can work hard, do all the right things and still teeter on the edge of poverty. In the restaurant industry – as well as in many industries in this new “gig economy” – there are often no steady salaries, no paid sick days, no employee health plans and no maternity leave.
It’s possible to work multiple jobs and still not have enough left for essentials like food. Or maybe you have enough for food, but not food and rent. We love to praise people for being industrious and “self-made,” but only if they become wildly rich and successful as a result. What about those of us working ourselves to the bone but still struggling to get by each month? Why are we being shamed when we ask for help?
It’s time to break the destructive narrative around SNAP and other assistance programs. But to do that, we need to step back and examine our own assumptions about those living in poverty. We need to reject patronizing, counterproductive policies that don’t help anyone work or live. We need to stay vigilant, because even though Congress passed a farm bill that protects SNAP, the Trump administration is threatening to propose harmful new rules that could cut food assistance for many. It just never ends.
I will always fight for SNAP, because it helped my family survive. But that’s what SNAP is currently designed for: survival. SNAP alone can’t solve the structural problem of poverty.
So, what would?
For starters, we need economic policies, including a fair tax code that prioritizes low-income people. And instead of only focusing on what will reduce poverty, we need to take a close look at what helps people build wealth in this country. One of those things is housing, particularly home ownership. We need to make it easier for people to own homes and build equity, while also greatly increasing access to affordable rentals. We need to zoom out and seriously examine the root causes of inequality, even within existing policies.
Our incoming Congress has an opportunity to do just that. I sincerely hope they take it.