SNAP and the Real Challenge

Last week I participated in the SNAP Challenge with almost 400 other Presbyterians, where we committed to eating on the average SNAP/Food Stamp benefit for a week, which in KY is $30 per person.  Like others, I gained several insights during the week, even though as an AmeriCorps VISTA my average food budget isn’t that much greater.  As difficult as it is to create a full and healthy diet on $30 per person per week, the real issue is the challenge of all of the other budget demands on a low-income household, which is why the SNAP benefits is often the only way to afford food.

Let’s start with a minimum wage worker earning $7.25 per hour, hopefully for at least 40 hours a week.  That gives them a weekly gross income of $290 per week and in many situations little or no paid vacation, sick leave or health insurance.  Housing often is the greatest expense and is considered affordable when it is no more than 30% of the household’s gross income for rent and utilities.  In Louisville, using 30% of gross minimum wage income and Fair Market Rent a 1 bedroom requires 62 hours per week at minimum wage, 78 hours for 2 bedroom and 107 hours for 3 bedroom apartment,  (for more information and national figures go to ). So if there is only one wage earner and a couple of kids, a three bedroom apartment would be $253 a week, or 87% of a minimum wage workers weekly income.  Another way to look at this is it takes 2.7 minimum wage jobs to make a 3 bedroom apartment affordable. So, typically even if there is more than one wage earner in the house there is still a need for more than one job per person or people are forced into apartments too small for the family size.

After housing expense, we need to factor in transportation costs.  In rural areas that means a car, gas, maintenance and insurance, because there most likely isn’t public transportation.  In urban areas the bus or train might be an option, but these costs are also significant and have risen at a faster rate than inflation for the past several years. For my budget my weekly car expense is probably about $30 per week if I factor in just gas, insurance and oil changes, which doesn’t cover replacement or large repairs and definitely not a car payment.  So for one car or one person taking the bus the expense is $21-30 per week for transportation.  But if there was a car payment in addition to the other car expenses, it could easily be 25-30% of the gross weekly income.

The next large budget item is child care and/or school expenses. For pre-school age kids, child care can be so costly that it doesn’t make financially sense to work if the only job options are minimum wage.  However, many people have family who assist in child care and some people do receive some assistance in child care expenses.

The last big piece of the budget is the daily expenses of clothes, household items, gifts, phone and school or work miscellaneous expenses which usually ends up being the about 10-20% of the $290 weekly income.  So after adding up all of these expenses for a single person and using the most optimistic numbers (no car payment,  a reliable car, insurance paid by employer or Medicaid) living in a one bedroom apartment, with limited additional expenses we still have only approximately $50 left after taxes each week.  However, most people have at least one additional expense such as child care, an unreliable car, no insurance and possibly a car payment and then they are over budget and this is all before we add in the cost of food. 

How do people make ends meet on such a limited budget?  They become experts in cutting costs, juggling bill due dates, and knowing where to find the best deals in town.   They learn to accept help and cope with living in homes too small for their family size.  Low-income people also have mastered the ability to be generous on a limited income often offering help to others in need and taking in family and friends when they face hard times.  

The stress that many of us experienced the past week during the SNAP Challenge was just around food, it didn’t include every other aspect of our lives and the financial pressure that comes with living on little income.  It also was for one week, not a daily experience that we had little hope of changing in the immediate future.  So the SNAP program provides a little relief, but we have a long way to go to making it actual meet the food needs and then we have so much further before we alleviate all of the pressures of hard working people working at low wage jobs.

The SNAP Challenge is over and now we are celebrating Thanksgiving and for some the challenge is how to not over eat.   Then we have Black Friday and a weekend of sales and a focus on buying stuff.  As I celebrate this Thanksgiving, I hope to remember how hard it was to buy health food for a week on $30.  I need to remember all of the people making minimum wage, many who are not getting the weekend off because they have to work in the stores, restaurants, and movie theaters that are frequented on this holiday weekend.  How much of my lifestyle is supported by people in this country and across the globe who are making too little to support themselves and their families so that I can have more stuff at a cheaper price?  Maybe this weekend I will join those working for a living wage and a sustainable lifestyle instead of joining the rush for a great deal on something I can probably do without.


Gina is an serving as an the National Food Justice Cultivator/AmeriCorps VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program.  Previously Gina worked for 20 years with affordable housing nonprofits who provided home-ownership and housing rehabilitation opportunities for low-income families in Central Appalachia.