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To End Hunger, We Must End Stigma

In less than a month, COVID-19 shifted the economic stability of millions of people in America through health emergencies, job loss, restaurant sector disruptions, and school closures. The federal government’s expansions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), child nutrition programs, and other federal safety net programs, such as Child Tax Credits and Unemployment Insurance boosts, prevented a catastrophic increase in hunger and poverty.

Widespread exposure to hardship during the COVID-19 crisis also has made a dent in the negative judgments between who is “deserving” and “undeserving” of government aid. Our nation needs to build on this renewed support for public assistance that any of us might need to access. We must redouble our efforts to erase the stigmatization of the federal nutrition programs, and instead promote their role in enhancing food security, well-being, health, and dignity.

Addressing Stigma

Stigmatizing individuals with low incomes perpetuates poverty and hunger through misguided policies and practices, like eligibility restrictions in the federal nutrition programs; work rules in some public benefit programs; and unequal access to fair wages, affordable housing, and other root causes of hunger.

Stigma also ignores the broad reaches of poverty and hunger.

  • Sixty percent of American adults will live below the poverty level for at least a year during their lifetime.

  • The main causes of entering poverty are universal experiences, like the birth of a child or the loss of a job.

  • Many employed people experience poverty, too often because they can only find low-wage jobs and part-time hours.

  • Eighty-six percent of SNAP benefits go to households with a child, an elderly adult, or a person with disabilities.

People often face multiple types of stigma and discrimination. In addition to the stigma associated with poverty, other types of stigma and discrimination can lead to hunger, including stigmatization on the basis of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or weight.

Stigma Impacts Policy Implementation

Stigma is not limited to interactions between people. Widespread, “structural” stigma” refers to societal norms and institutions that constrain the opportunities, resources, and well-being of the people who are stigmatized. We have seen how these can slow down important policies in the past, for example, in the fight against HIV/AIDS, marriage equality, and immigration reform. These delays come at tremendous financial costs and great human suffering.

Stigmatizing cultural narratives are also jeopardizing our ability to achieve a robust and equitable recovery from COVID-19 as we have seen with judgments about people wanting to re-enter the workforce, misguided blame for supply chain issues, and efforts to undercut expansions to the social safety net.

“What we are witnessing with the myth of labor shortages is an attempt to ‘criminalize’ being unemployed, to force people into starvation to create a pro-business labor bargaining position.” —William Spriggs, AFL-CIO economist

In sum, structural and institutionalized stigma contribute to systematically unequal access to healthy food, social programs, employment, fair wages, health care, education, and housing. The resulting economic instability, hunger, and poor health are inextricably linked together in a vicious cycle.

Stigma Impacts Program Participation

Stigma prevents eligible people from accessing government assistance or food pantries out of fear that community members will know they live in poverty and will judge them for it. This comes from interactions with others as well as internalized shame.

Stigma can come from staff who are responsible for enrolling individuals in government programs, cashiers at the grocery store, “lunch shaming” at school, or friends and family.

“Your life is ultimately laid bare in document form, fanned out in front of the person whose job it is to decide whether you’re optimally managing the finances of your household and whether you and your people deserve help from the government. It’s a reductive and demeaning process.” —Janelle Harris, former SNAP participant

Stigma also can be internalized, where individuals experiencing poverty or hunger blame themselves for their circumstances and feel shame. For example, older adults in particular do not like to identify as a person who is in need of federal nutrition assistance, and have some of the lowest participation rates in SNAP. Food insecurity is associated with poor mental health, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

“I just didn’t want to go [to Project Open Hand for food] because now I’m actually publicly getting help from some entity, and people are going to know. And, you know, what does that say about me? I’m a bad person now.” —Anonymous man experiencing stigma from poverty and HIV

When households feel the need to “pass as normal” and hide their experiences of food insecurity and poverty, it becomes harder to provide them with the support they need and deserve if they do not access social programs. It also becomes harder to raise awareness of the systemic underpinnings of hunger and poverty, perpetuating the myth of individual failings.

“I come from a family that eats and starves [together]. Society should not see you suffer … you’re supposed to have your head up at all times.” —Anonymous single mother

We Must Take Action to End Stigma

Innovations in the federal nutrition programs provide powerful examples of how policy can be changed to reduce stigma. Providing electronic benefit transfer cards has reduced stigma for participants in SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which has increased enrollment. Universal meals and breakfast after the bell have reduced the stigma of participating in school meals.

Further action is necessary to reduce stigma in the federal nutrition programs. The Senate should act quickly to pass the Build Back Better Act, which includes provisions to expand the number of schools that would be able to offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision. Offering healthy school meals to all students eliminates the stigma associated with school meals. Access to SNAP should be improved by removing stigmatizing eligibility restrictions, including for unemployed and underemployed people, college students, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

We must also reject policies that stigmatize individuals using food assistance programs. Proposals that aim to restrict SNAP customer food choice ignore the research that shows the diets of SNAP and non-SNAP participants are similar. Such restrictive proposals would increase stigma, complicate transactions for customers and grocery store clerks, and likely reduce program participation. Instead, increasing program access and benefit adequacy can bolster SNAP’s positive impacts on food security, health, and well-being.

Anyone may need federal nutrition program assistance. This includes children, families, older Americans, people with disabilities, immigrants, formerly incarcerated individuals making a new start, struggling college students, and single, able-bodied working adults who are not able to make ends meet. Nobody should be made to feel “other” or “less than” due to life’s circumstances.

We must shift the narrative away from the myth of individual failings to the reality of structural failures. A program to end hunger must start with economic policies that promote good jobs, wages, and benefits for all; ensure workers’ rights to collective bargaining; strengthen federal nutrition programs and other safety net benefits; and address the structural racism and stigma that have undermined equity and justice for all.

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