A Doctoral Degree Has No Nutritional Value

Cans of soup at a local grocery store / Photo by Bethany Prange

As I was tooling around the internet last night, a story on Yahoo’s homepage caught my eye.  The piece, “Even a PhD Couldn’t Keep This Man Off Food Stamps”, is a story about Tony Yang, a guy my age with a degree much more advanced than my bachelor’s degree in radio and TV production.

Writer Mandi Woodruff featured Yang because despite his advanced degree, he has to apply for welfare. Even his doctorate in history from the University of California wasn’t enough to bring home a steady paycheck.

Growing up, Tony’s family supplemented their income with food stamps.  He worked hard in school and was rewarded with a doctoral degree.  But that degree wasn’t enough to keep him from falling back into the same situation he was born into.

Tony’s story is troubling, and according to the story, not all that uncommon. The story states that the rate of doctorate holders who have filed for government assistance tripled between 2007 and 2010.

And of the nation’s 22 million individuals with a master’s degree, nearly 360,000 applied for food stamps by 2010, Woodruff writes.

It seems there is no field of study or degree of education that can offer infinite security. Anyone, at any time, could be only a few steps removed from needing assistance.

I came to this grave realization while also acknowledging that our situation is being exacerbated by what is currently going on in our halls of government in Washington D.C.

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 218 to 199 to approve a deficit reduction measure that includes a drastic $36 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. This is the same cut that was approved by the House Budget Committee on May 7 and by the House Agriculture Committee on April 18. The complete deficit reduction package would generate savings largely made from deep cuts to programs that assist low-income families and individuals like Tony.

True, a doctoral student may not be your first thought when food stamp cuts are mentioned. But Woodruff’s story goes on to state an overlooked fact – many of these graduate and post-graduate students are married and have children.

They may be working lesser paying jobs, hoping to make ends meet until the economy recovers. But with the average of $45,000 in debt that today’s 20-somethings are carrying, many can barely afford to survive.

So what will cuts to SNAP mean for these struggling individuals and the thousands of other hard-working Americans across the country who can’t afford food? The thought is incomprehensible.

SNAP is an important federal safety net program that makes it possible for these individuals and many families to put food on the table. It feels like the House is using certain myths about the program to justify making dangerous policy changes and sweeping cuts to the program.

Some will say that there are too many people using SNAP benefits and that it has grown too much over the past few years.  It’s true the program has grown significantly in recent years.  However, it is only shocking that SNAP participation grew by 70% from 2006 to 2011 if you fail to mention that the ranks of the unemployed grew by 94% over the same period.

Others will point to sensational stories of SNAP abuse as a justification to make cuts to the program. For every one story of abuse, there are hundreds of other stories of hardworking people using the benefits to help feed their families or prevent them from having to make a choice between paying for food or paying a bill.

SNAP is not a luxury.  SNAP is a means of survival.  SNAP is way for people who are struggling to have something to put on their plate.  It is a hand-up, not a hand out.  The average monthly benefit for a SNAP participant is $134. That’s less than $1.50 per meal.  SNAP participants aren’t living “high off the hog.”  They’re trying to eat, so they have the energy to get up in the morning to look for the job that they so desperately want.

I don’t want you to feel sorry for Tony Yang and his situation and I’m pretty sure that Tony doesn’t want you to either, but I also don’t want you to ignore what is happening in the House of Representatives.  Tony is working hard and trying to better his life and so are millions of other Americans.

As noted earlier, I wasn’t a political science major in college, but I do have a family and I understand the importance of balancing a budget.  Like many others, I still believe that a good paying job is the best solution to hunger and poverty. However, until we get back on track as a nation and restore opportunities for the young and old alike, we can’t turn our back on people like Tony.  SNAP needs to be there until sustainable employment becomes a reality.

    Ryan Farmer is the communications manager at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

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