I’m putting on my Proud Welfare Mom hat today to explain the difference between WIC and SNAP (food stamps). It’s really important, and really confusing. I’ll do my best.
**Disclaimer: I am not trained to explain any of this to anyone, or to help anyone apply. My experience is limited to the Connecticut Department of Social Services only.**
First, it’s important to understand that WIC is a special kind of “welfare” program. The acronym is for Women Infants and Children. It’s the most basic of safety nets, in that the purpose of WIC is to make sure that pregnant women, infants and very young children receive very basic nutrition (milk, eggs, bread) for low-income families. You can qualify for WIC if your income is below a certain amount. Other WIC requirements include: living in the area of the office you’re applying through, and a few other things. The most important thing about WIC, though, and what makes it such a basic safety net, is that you don’t need to prove that you’re a US citizen or a documented immigrant to qualify, meaning that the US government realizes that the most very basic nutrition for pregnant women and children under five-years-old is good for society at large. Or, if you are cynical, it is cheaper to provide basic nutritional assistance for the most vulnerable population than to provide health care after they show up in our emergency rooms.
Unlike WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as and still informally referred to as “food stamps,” requires a rather lengthy application and many more eligibility requirements. It is not just for the basics, but for groceries in general. Very unlike WIC, you can’t even receive SNAP benefits unless you’re a US citizen or have lived here legally for at least five years. That’s probably because SNAP is much more expensive–a family of three, like mine, can receive about $500 per month. That’s not what we get, but you can imagine that it adds up.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a dollar amount for WIC. This is the second important difference between WIC and SNAP; WIC benefits include a book of “checks,” or vouchers, for specific foods, to be used at specific stores, while SNAP provides money for food in general, at a variety of stores and even, in some states, restaurants. WIC checks are so complicated to use that my husband and I have never managed, between the two of us, to make it through the checkout process at a grocery store without encountering some sort of problem. Right brand, wrong type of bread–”Yes, you did get the 12 grain bread last time, but that was in December. Now, it’s a new year and we only allow the Whole Wheat from that brand.” If we don’t get everything that’s been printed on the check, or if the store is simply out of stock, then we are out of luck. Nothing organic is allowed. Keep in mind that we are over-educated, native English speakers, and we have a really hard time navigating this process. When my therapist asked me why WIC made me feel angry, infantalized and humiliated, I showed her the booklet explaining which foods we are and are not allowed to get. She made several mistakes trying to understand the first two pages.
Why is WIC so complicated? Because it involves negotiations between the states and food manufacturers. The state asks companies to submit bids and accepts whatever it can get for the least amount of money. Big companies can usually afford to provide the deepest discounts. WIC makes a list of those foods and prints it on our vouchers. The stores must then write down the dollar amount, send in the vouchers and wait to receive compensation. For that reason, if we wanted formula from WIC, we could only get Enfamil. If we chose to use the vouchers they give us for jars of baby food, we could only get certain ”flavors” of the Beech Nut brand. Babies who are breastfed can get the jars of meat, but babies who are formula fed can only get the fruit and veggie jars. Why? Because they only allow iron-enriched formula. Breastfed babies need the iron in the jars of meat, presumably. Just for the record, our local WIC office encourages breastfeeding with warmth and enthusiasm, and I love them for it. Every three months, we go to the office and sit down with the booklet and a nutritional counsellor and choose from our options. We are apparently unusual for choosing the tofu option. Everyone receives vouchers for gallons of milk. I don’t know how anyone goes through that much milk. It’s supposed to be on of my main sources of protein, unfortunately.
WIC is stuck in the distant past in its nutritional suggestions (processed cereals, juice from concentrate, skim milk for protein, etc.) because highly processed foods are cheaper. Organic is more expensive. I wasn’t really that angry about “Big Agra” and corporate food until I saw for myself the way low-income families get stuck with the worst options, simply because they are the cheapest to manufacture and contain foods heavily subsidized in farming (corn and corn products are in absolutely everything). Frosted Flakes (generic, processed corn, sugary) are allowed, while steel-cut oatmeal (high in protein, hardly processed) is not. We can only get the most heavily processed hot cereals, too.
SNAP allows us complete freedom in what we buy; it simply limits the amount of money we are allowed to spend. We fill out mountains of paperwork, and the Department of Social Services determines how much money we should receive. They put it on an “EBT” card that we swipe and use with a PIN, just as through it were attached to our bank account. It took me months of waiting and hours on the phone to get that amount adjusted after Walt was born, because someone, somewhere, had failed to type in his social security number. Now that we have received the money we ought to have been allotted in the first place, I can feed my child organic products. Because we prefer to eat unprocessed foods in general and because, in the store itself (as opposed to in the board room, where WIC is negotiated), vegetables are cheaper than anything else, we eat well on that amount.
In Connecticut, the only restriction we’ve encountered on what we buy using our SNAP money is on prepared foods. Oddly, we can’t use it for the salad bar at Whole Foods, but we can use it for the sushi they package and sell in a cooler right in front of the counter where they prepare the sushi. I don’t really understand the restrictions, but I love SNAP. Whatever it doesn’t cover just comes up as a balance. It’s easy for everyone, as though you were splitting the bill onto two cards.
You can use your SNAP card at any grocery store, whereas WIC vouchers may only be used at stores who have agreed to participate. Cashiers don’t need to understand any rules or call over managers for any signatures when we use our SNAP card, but WIC vouchers require both. We can always use our SNAP card at farmers’ markets and even receive an extra $10 to spend on fruits and vegetables when we “spend” at least $10, there. WIC has just started giving out checks for the market, but they are few and far between.
I’ve surpassed 1200 words and have also reached the limits of my patience. I’m happy to answer any questions, though! Ask away!
One more thing: I am proud of myself for navigating all the paperwork and time on the phone required to get my family the help we need. I am still struggling with feelings of shame in actually using that help. I can’t handle WIC checks at all. Nathan does it all, so that I don’t have anxiety attacks in the aisles of Wal-Mart (a company I hate, but the only place where the cashiers know what they’re doing regarding WIC). My emotional response is complicated. Money is hard for everyone to deal with, even people who have lots, in my experience. I’m hoping that talking about it will help me and anyone else who happens across this space.