Participants’ Experiences of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown and Subsequent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefit Disruption Can Inform Future Policy
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Focus Groups
2.2. Data Analysis
3.1. Participants Reported Routinely Struggling to Secure an Adequate, Healthy Diet
3.1.1. Routine Food Insecurity Is Experienced in the Context of High Costs of Living
You know, with our incomes, and especially with the rent is so high and our bills… it gets really stressful trying to be like, ‘Okay, where’s my next meal gonna come from? How am I going to feed my kids’
I have to eat healthy with my- my GI problems that I have. I have to eat white plain chicken, you know, fresh vegetables, and they don’t bother me so much… But … you run out of the chicken, or whatever, you run out of vegetables. Then you’ve got a can of raviolis that the food bank gave you. Well, that’s what you eat. And it tears you up. You know it makes you sick, but you gotta eat.
3.1.2. Food Is Too Expensive, Especially Healthy Food
Sodas and all that, it’s easy to last longer, but it’s like trying to do that, they last through the end of the month, and healthy food is hard … you’re trying to make your kids eat healthy, but it’s really expensive at the same time….
3.2. Participants Reported Feeling Grateful for SNAP, but Also Felt that the Benefits are Inadequate. Many Reported Negative Experiences with the Program
3.2.1. SNAP Benefit Levels Are Too Low
… what they give us is not enough for one month, that they should try to help us a little more…. They should think about the children because more than anything else, the food you ask for is for them, they should think about what hurts our children.
It’s really hard out here… I’m pretty sure all of us pay our taxes, you know, we pay our dues. We do it, everything that we needed to be doing, but yet still we get slapped in the face like, ‘No, you can’t qualify for that because of this and that.’ And that makes it even more stressful, you know?
You have to go back and forth and be able to get to different stores and then maybe be able to go back to a different store in order to get the best prices and everything, but then of course, [gasps] ‘That costs gas.’
3.2.2. Participants Described Challenges with SNAP Administration
- Participant 1:
- I think giving $15 a month to anyone is ludicrous. It’s like an insult.
- Participant 2:
- It’s a slap in the face…. It’s disrespectful is what it is.
There are times when you are disappointed when you go to ask for help, because some workers make you feel that the help you are going to ask for is coming out of their paycheck.
But the communications for this welfare office… I have called them and called them and called them and you know, they won’t return any phone calls… they don’t want to talk to me. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s just the way they treat everybody.
…I applied for unemployment, but I was never granted, but I applied. Somewhere in the system… it told them that I-I was receiving benefits from unemployment, which I wasn’t… But CalFresh cut it, like majorly, like 90%…
… when you go to work and make your check and then they cut your food stamp down and now, you’ve got to spend your cash now. It’s supposed to be for the bills and you ain’t got cash for the bills and it’s just a vicious circle.
When it goes down, they decrease it in so many days, or weeks, or months after you make the amount. So then you go down again in the amount that you’re making and so then it isn’t working out. You don’t have crap when you need it and you have more when you don’t.
3.3. Participants Reported Confusion Related to the 2019 Benefit Disruption and Unique Challenges with SNAP as A Result
3.3.1. Inadequate Communications
Like, I would have rather have them communicate clearly about what they were doing that month, because I never got the message… So I didn’t know.
I was hearing stuff about government and stuff like that and everything. So I guess that’s why it was getting messed with, federal stuff.
…I turned in my thing and told them, ‘Hey, I only got this. I think I should get an increase from my $15.’ And… so I didn’t know about any of this other stuff going on and them doing their added thing for the government. And so I was confused. I was like, ‘Okay is that my-- is that how much they increased it? They just gave me an extra $15. [laughs] What’s going on?’ And then I called … and they explained it, but yeah, that was very confusing to me…
- Participant 1:
- I have also heard that about the food stamps um, um, if you don’t use ‘em, you lose ‘em…. So you be afraid to-- and you can’t get anybody to answer the question.
- Participant 2:
- She’s right. They just send you letters threatening you that, but they never do, do it.
I was worried that I needed to spend it because with the wacky, screwy way everything is going, I didn’t know if they would take it away with the government shut down, so I had to spend the whole thing. But I got stuff that I could freeze…
I was scared. I said, ‘The government made a mistake… I got scared, but I was happy, I thought they were wrong, it scared me but made me happy at the same time.
The news I heard said maybe there were going to be changes, that they were not going to give benefits anymore, and that was why they paid the month in advance… I thought that there was not going to be any help anymore… the help is over.
I thought that maybe they were going to take it away, because I heard rumors that they were about to take the aid away. So, I said, ‘Maybe they gave us the last month because they want to say that there is not going to be more money.’ … I imagined it this way, but many people were saying that they were going to remove the stamps and that they were not giving them anymore.
We splurged in January, so, um, and not realizing that we were not gonna get benefits in…February … You know, in February, um, we just ate less.
I’m going to eat, I’m going to eat well, healthy and well. First, I bought meat, to make roast meat for my children that day, and I invited my siblings who live opposite my house. I told them, ‘Let’s eat roast meat. Help me.’
So then when they doubled it, I was like, like I said, we took a bunch of friends to take them to Safeway to get them food and we ate good. Um, we ate things that we couldn’t eat, like a steak.
I did hear in the news, but I’m like, ‘Let me go get what we need.’ But when you go to the market, you grab more to eat, especially when the kids are there, and you have young kids…. and I know it’s bad, but sometimes as mothers, you don’t know how to say ‘no.’ … Especially you grew up with parents that struggled too… So, for my kids, I try to give them what I didn’t have… It was a struggle, that month.
3.4. Some Participants Reported Feeling Relieved or Happy When They Received the February Benefit in January, but the Overall Impact of the Disruption was Increased Stress Levels, Poorer Food Security, Disrupted Finances, and Increased Negative Perceptions of Government Support
3.4.1. Emotional Stress
I was stressed because I didn’t know what’s going on.
When we were already in a state of chaos and concern and worry, do not make it worse by doing things that we don’t know about, don’t understand, don’t get information on.
In my case, my daughter, the oldest, already notices more or sees things. She said, ‘Mom, did they advance you the money because they’re going to take away your help?’ Because medical help is also included, she said, ‘Mommy, are you not going to be able to take me to the doctor, to the dentist anymore?’… She was worried.
3.4.2. Initial Relief, Followed by More Stress
You don’t even think about it, it’s just a big stress relief… That’s a big burden off your back kinda type of thing, how you gonna survive this month literally by eating is, yeah, that’s-that’s something you don’t have to worry about at that point…
I was happy because I had a lot of money [laughs] for food.
I ate a lot better in January, because I had more. I’ve been able to go more to get more fresh vegetables….
It’s nice to have more benefits, but if you think about it, you’re going to spend them, and you still have the whole month of February, and say, ‘Okay, I spent them. But what about February? What am I going to do? What’s going to happen then?’
I was able to get a little bit more with that double benefit. Um, I wasn’t limited to and trying to make it stretch for that month. I was able to, like, buy stuff to make a complete meal, you know what I mean? And so it was good. You know, it was good and bad…
3.4.3. Increased Food Insecurity and Negative Financial Impacts
The food boxes definitely came in handy, um, um, very appreciative for those. Um, different pantries that give out the eggs, rice and things like that because that’s what they [the kids] love.
Well, my daughter [also a SNAP participant]… feeds five people and, um, she said it was really hard for her, because she got all that money in January and… she bought a lot of extra stuff, and she just didn’t have anything much for February…. She stocked up the best she could, but feeding five people and a teenager was very difficult.
I felt the impact and it just took me back to feeling poor.
That’s what changed this month. In these last two weeks, I had to take from the money we were saving to pay the rent, which had never happened.
She [speaker’s daughter] had to use her gas money for food, because she’s still kind of playing catch up…. She called me several times crying, ‘Ma, I don’t- we don’t have enough food. What am I going to do…? You know, I can’t afford to this and this and this.’ And I can’t help her. So there was a lot of times that all she had was like crackers and whatever. So it was very difficult for them. And I can imagine people with families have the same problem.
It’s a huge domino effect, really. It really, really is, ‘cause when you-- You’re just trying to catch up from… February, and here’s March and you just have to get extra stuff that you couldn’t buy in February, you know, and it’s this big old domino effect.
Right now, the only difficult decision we have is the stress of paying off what we are borrowing with interest… Having to use it to pay off the rent. You have to do one thing and fail at another. You get into debt with the cards and then it’s a mess.
3.4.4. Reduced Security about Safety net Support and Overall Faith in Government
You cannot always depend on it [SNAP]. ‘Cause, like he said, we didn’t expect nothing like this happened. So you can kind of, like, never know.
I mean, I’m grateful for the government, you know, for it to help me with the food stamps or whatever. But at the same time, I feel like it’s just like they can-- all of a sudden within a blink of an eye, they can take it all away. And then what are we going to do?
- Participant 1:
- And it’s still stressful, because I’m thinking in my head, you know, like, ‘Okay, this is three months solid now that you’ve been playing around with the money for these people. What is it going to be? What is-- is April going to be nothing?’
- Participant 2:
- Yeah, that was my major concern. And that- that is very stressful.
Cause’ the government shutdown… it makes even more things harder and it makes us to think like, ‘Okay, if they did that, you know, what if they do- what if they decide to do that again?’ And then what? Thousands of families going to be left with, you know, with nothing… it just makes us even more and more like what else is… going to happen? … it’s basically, we just feel like it’s a waiting game….That’s just gonna make us worry.
It’s obviously caused a lot of… confusion to people and-and the mass hysteria is pointing to, you know, that our government in America can’t get your blank [sic] together, to where we’re all being in confusion and craziness like this. It’s not healthy for us, period. And they just kind of like-like it’s nothing on us, like a game or something to them. This isn’t a game. This is reality.
- Participant 1:
- Participant 1: It’s just disgusting to think that the gover- you know, the government or the powers that be like to have their reason to want that to happen to their people. I mean, I don’t understand what the point of doing that to people is. To see if they can take it or not or what, what’s the deal here?
- Participant 1:
- Participant 2: They don’t care, they’re getting their paycheck. They don’t need food stamps. They get paid whether they work or not…
3.5. Participants’ Recommendations for SNAP
- Improve benefit adequacy by increasing benefit levels.
- Modify eligibility and benefit formulas to better address high costs-of-living as well as the expenses associated with working (e.g., transportation, child care).
- Improve customer service and communications.
- Do not disrupt SNAP benefits in the future.
I would, um, actually ask for more cash too, like she was saying. Um, if we could, um, be able to use that EBT [SNAP] money for toiletries, that would, you know, it would just help me a lot.
… when I get my [non-SNAP] money, I go to Walmart and buy the stuff I need that I have to pay for and I like to buy some of the food there, but then I have to go back out when I get it [SNAP benefits] on the sixth and go to Grocery Outlet and then back to Walmart to buy the less expensive stuff. So it’s-it’s a matter of convenience, but also the cost of gas, time, energy…
I would like to see more literature if that happens again, so that people don’t go overspending and they have enough.
Conflicts of Interest
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|Los Angeles||Tuolumne||San Mateo||San Francisco|
|Focus Group Characteristics|
|Time of day||Morning||Midday||Evening||Afternoon|
|Number of participants||9||8||5||4|
|Location||Middle school||Food bank||Homeless family shelter||American Red Cross facility|
|Population||Mothers of school-age children||Adults||Parents raising children||Adults|
|Region||Southern CA||Northern CA||SF Bay Area||SF Bay Area|
|Predominant racial/ethnic groups ||Latinx (49%), White (26%) |
|White (80%), Latinx (13%)||White (40%), Asian (30%), Latinx (24%)||White (40%), Asian (40%), Latinx (15%)|
|Median household income (annual in US dollars) ||$64,251||$56,493||$113,776||$104,552|
|Poverty rate [42,43]||23.0%||6.8%||16.5%||18.2%|
|1||Thinking about what you and your family eat in a usual month, can you think of any things you are doing that work especially well or any ways that you would like to change what you eat? What would help you meet your goals?|
|2||In a typical month, how much of your family’s food needs would you say are met by your CalFresh/EBT benefit? Where does the rest come from?|
|3||In a typical month, do you find yourself worrying about running out of food because you do not have enough EBT benefits or other resources? What do you do if this happens?|
|4||What did you think about getting a second benefit payment in January?|
|5||Why do you think you got this benefit?|
|6||Can you think of any ways in which getting the February benefits in January changed how you shopped for food or what you ate in January?|
|7||Can you think of any ways that your family’s health was different in January because of this change in how you got CalFresh/EBT?|
|8||Thinking about stress, how would you say the payment of February CalFresh/EBT benefits in January impacted your stress level? Have any changes in stress affected how well you feel? What about your family members?|
|9||Did you have any days that you missed work or school due to health issues in January? Any hospitalizations? Did your children have any changes in their school attendance, behavior, or achievement during January?|
|10||Can you think of any ways in which the longer period between receiving CalFresh/EBT benefits has changed how you shopped for or got food or what you ate in February?|
|11||Can you think of any ways that your family’s health was different in February?|
|12||Thinking about your stress level, how has increased time between CalFresh benefits impacted your stress level?|
|13||What do you want decision makers to know about your experience with this change in CalFresh/EBT payments?|
|14||Has this change in payments led you to think about any ways you’d like to see CalFresh/EBT change? Has this given you any new ideas about your usual CalFresh/EBT benefit levels?|
|15||How can CalFresh/EBT better help you and your family? If your CalFresh benefits could be increased, how much more per week do you think it would take for you to be able to feed yourself/your family?|
|70 or older||1||(4)|
|Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander||2||(8)|
|Highest Education Level Completed|
|Grade 1–12 (no diploma)||9||(35)|
|High school diploma (or equivalent)||9||(35)|
|Stay at home providing unpaid care||13||(52)|
|Less than US$16,000||15||(58)|
|More than US$37,000||1||(4)|
|Do not know||3||(12)|
|Divorced or Separated||11||(42)|
|Living with a partner||3||(12)|
|Current SNAP Participant||21||(81)|
|Food Program participation in the past 6 months|
|Free or reduced-price lunch or breakfast at school||8||(31)|
|School food backpack program||3||(12)|
|Food pantry/food bank||15||(58)|
|Food Security (Ran out of food and did not have money to buy more in the past year)|
© 2020 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Gosliner, W.; Chen, W.-T.; Johnson, C.; Esparza, E.M.; Price, N.; Hecht, K.; Ritchie, L. Participants’ Experiences of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown and Subsequent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefit Disruption Can Inform Future Policy. Nutrients 2020, 12, 1867. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061867
Gosliner W, Chen W-T, Johnson C, Esparza EM, Price N, Hecht K, Ritchie L. Participants’ Experiences of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown and Subsequent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefit Disruption Can Inform Future Policy. Nutrients. 2020; 12(6):1867. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061867Chicago/Turabian Style
Gosliner, Wendi, Wei-Ting Chen, Cathryn Johnson, Elsa Michelle Esparza, Natalie Price, Ken Hecht, and Lorrene Ritchie. 2020. "Participants’ Experiences of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown and Subsequent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefit Disruption Can Inform Future Policy" Nutrients 12, no. 6: 1867. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061867