Disenfranchised: Families Facing Food Insecurity in the United States

Sinikka Elliott, Sarah Bowen, and Annie Hardison-Moody

“They want to check the workers. It’s one obstacle after the other. They want to virtually lock us up,” says Angie, an immigrant mother who works as a cook in a deli.

After the 2016 election, Angie was no longer allowed to speak Spanish at work, ostensibly because her manager couldn’t understand it. But in a climate of harsh crackdowns on undocumented workers in the U.S., speaking Spanish around a customer or delivery person could trigger an ICE raid.

Although grateful to be employed, Angie feels caged in. She works six days a week and worries about not spending enough time with her two daughters. The pay is measly. Despite earning very little, Angie and her husband don’t qualify for many public benefits because undocumented immigrants are disenfranchised from most programs meant to help low-income families, even though most pay taxes. And Angie is reluctant to apply for those they qualify for out of fear of ICE.

Angie and her family are part of a longitudinal study of 124 poor and working-class Black, white, and Latino/a/x families in North Carolina. Over the last 8 years, we spoke to Angie and the other families multiple times about what it takes to feed a family on a tight budget. We discovered that many families, like Angie’s, face forms of disenfranchisement that exclude them from public benefits by making them ineligible for or unwilling to access them. And we came to see the many ways disenfranchisement matters for families’ food security.

When the project began, the U.S. was slowly emerging from the Great Recession. Times had been tough. At the start of the study, half the families were considered food insecure according to the federal government’s definition, meaning they lacked enough food to ensure a healthy life.

To many people, food insecurity is an individual problem, tied to individual failings, whether it’s a person’s inability to grocery shop on a budget, cook cheaply at home, buy the “right” kinds of food, or work hard to afford the food they need. But rates of food insecurity are higher in the United States than in most wealthy industrialized countries and have not improved substantially since the USDA began tracking them in the 1990s. The persistence of food insecurity in a wealthy nation tells us it is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed at the structural level. Rates of food insecurity are also patterned in ways reflecting broad social inequalities. Black and Latino/a/x families are twice as likely as white families to experience food insecurity, for example.

Our research indicates that one contributor to food insecurity in the U.S. is disenfranchisement from public benefits. Disenfranchisement comes in many guises. One form involves excluding certain groups of people from receiving benefits—people like undocumented immigrants, those with a felony drug conviction, or able-bodied adults without dependents. Angie and her husband don’t qualify for a lot of public benefits because they are undocumented. But one of their daughters was born in the U.S. and is eligible for some government benefits. Still, they won’t apply for them out of fear. Being afraid to access benefits you’re entitled to is another form of disenfranchisement.

Fear has been an overriding theme in Angie’s life since Donald Trump was elected. She isn’t the only one. Another immigrant mother in our study stopped going to the park across the street from her home after Trump took office. Angie has reduced her driving to a bare minimum, fearful she will be stopped by police and have her vehicle impounded when she’s unable to produce a driver’s license. No longer able to travel farther distances for better bargains, her monthly food bill has doubled. “It costs me more, really. For the whole week, it is about $150. Over there [where I used to shop], I would spend that much every two weeks.”

The family was managing, and then came the coronavirus pandemic. Angie and her husband’s hours were cut at work. Her husband’s hours were reinstated, but his shifts required him to be out past the curfew imposed as part of the stay-at-home orders. Given their fears of deportation, he couldn’t risk it.

Angie could go to one of the many food pantries that have mobilized in her area to help families put food on the table during the pandemic. But Angie only feels comfortable going to one nearby food pantry she learned about from a close friend. There, she collects a food box every other week. They could apply for SNAP for their youngest daughter to help fill the gap somewhat, but they won’t because they are scared to.

Over Skype, Angie’s mother asks why Trump is doing what he is doing. Angie replies, “I don’t know. He makes his decision. He doesn’t know what to do with us, Ma, what to blame us for. We don’t—. There are good ones and there are bad ones.” They come down on the side of the “good ones,” Angie thinks. They’re hard working. They pay taxes. They don’t accept public benefits. They’re raising good kids. But still, she feels that Trump is looking for an excuse to blame them. They must not give him the opportunity.

Disenfranchisement can also involve making public benefits complicated or cumbersome to get or keep. Ashley, another person in our study, lives with her husband and 3 children in a rural county near Angie. When we interviewed Ashley a few years ago, she and her family were hunkering down in the midst of a months-long period of severe food insecurity. “It just causes distress and [I] feel fatigued and just wore out, and, you know, I get irritated and ill because I’m stressed,” Ashley says.

This awful situation stemmed from their SNAP benefits not being renewed. A few months earlier, Ashley worked at a cleaning job for one day. Realizing the work was not for her, she left the company. Social Services issued a form Ashley needed the company to fill out stating she no longer worked for them. She called and the cleaning company said “they wouldn’t fill the paperwork out. And so I’m like, there’s nothing I can do if they won’t fill it out. So what am I supposed to do?” As a result, the family’s SNAP benefits still had not been renewed several months later. Ashley didn’t know when, or even if, she would be able to get them back.

Ashley’s loss of SNAP benefits is by design: a built-in feature of SNAP that imposes hurdles meant to limit SNAP participation. When families experience these bureaucratic hurdles, the harsh reality is that they can be disenfranchised from a public benefit and go hungry. This was the case for Ashley’s family. Her oldest daughter, 6-year-old Maylee, said that when she’s hungry, “I go to bed and think about eating.” It’s hard to sleep, though, when you’re hungry, she said.

Finally, the shame many experience about receiving public benefits is another form of disenfranchisement that shapes families’ food security. Clarissa, also in our study, was proud to have raised her children “on my own with nobody’s help,” even if that meant taking on three jobs as a single mother. By the time we met her, she was 55 and raising her grandchildren. With serious health conditions that left her unable to work, she was forced to apply for public benefits for the first time. Clarissa was conflicted about it. She acutely sensed the judgmental gaze of others. “I went to Walmart and got cussed out for using food stamps by people in line. [They said] that that’s where their tax dollars are going because my fat, lazy ass won’t get off my butt and get a job.”

Clarissa admits she used to be the same way. “In my mind I would [say], ‘Look, they got all these kids and getting food stamps,’ but then when I wound up needing it, I understood.” After avoiding public assistance for years, Clarissa eventually swallowed her pride and applied for SNAP. But throughout the years of the study, Clarissa remained ambivalent about this even though she was persistently food insecure. She’s not alone. With cuts to welfare, SNAP is an important safety net for many families. But around one-fifth of eligible participants do not apply for or receive SNAP, and some groups, including immigrant families and older adults, are even less likely to receive SNAP, even when they’re eligible.

Blaming immigrants and making them afraid to leave their home, imposing rigid bureaucratic hurdles to access government assistance, and shaming people for being so-called dependent on the government are all effective ways to disenfranchise individuals from public benefits. In big and small ways, each of these processes increases families’ susceptibility to food insecurity.

So what are some solutions to disenfranchisement? The pandemic aid response, especially with regard to food assistance programs, is one step in the right direction. States have used temporary SNAP flexibility to boost many families’ SNAP benefits, make it easier to apply for and maintain benefits, and provide benefits to households with children missing school meals (and some states have distributed some benefits universally). These policy changes should be implemented permanently (instead of being controversial temporary measures). The bigger step will require deep systemic changes in how we think about deservingness and the government’s role as a social safety net, and how we structure social and economic rewards.

The pandemic has made it clear how precarious food security is in the U.S. and how many obstacles the government imposes in ordinary times for accessing help to put food on the table. It’s time the government started working for low-income families, not against them.

Sinikka Elliott is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Sarah Bowen is a Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University.

Annie Hardison-Moody is an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University.

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