How To Live On Unemployment and Food Stamps, And Love It?

I rarely shop at Whole Foods because the prices are rather expensive, but during my last visit I saw someone buy several high-end luxury food items with a food stamp card (SNAP – Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).   We’re talking cheese at $20/lb, a couple of premium beverages, and exotic mushrooms.  With four items, the total dollar amount this young woman rang up could have fed a family for a week.

Am I missing something here?

courtesy of Cedric

I don’t know her whole story; there very well could be a reasonable explanation for her choice in splurging on government assistance.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like exotic mushrooms, but I think government aid to the unemployed might be better spent in her case.

This exorbitant use of unemployment assistance is apparently not new or unusual.  Salon recently wrote an article about hipsters (young urbanites) shopping for organic foods such as salmon with food stamps and considering it as a normal entitlement.  The blog, Stuff Unemployed People Like, had an article titled Buying Perrier with Food Stamps and noted that some people actually focus on buying as much luxury items as possible on food stamps because the government is subsidizing it.

Surfing the net, I found several other blogs written by people in their 20s and 30s who were enjoying unemployment because they now had a luxurious lifestyle that they somehow couldn’t afford while working.   One woman talked about using food stamps at Whole Foods to make sure that she got bottled coconut water for daily use.  I love coconut water but I never thought to spend $2.50/bottle versus paying $.30/coconut.  One recent news clip I saw on TV had a young man who admitted that he spent food stamps on gourmet cheese.

People were frank in their desire to stretch living like this for as long as they could.   I guess who could blame them in a sense: why work when the government is giving you money to indulge yourself?

So how are they doing this? Simple, many start by tapping their parents for housing and additional support.  They then apply for unemployment, food stamps and every other benefit that they can squeeze out of the Federal, state, local, and private systems.   Many also have severance checks to run through, as well as credit cards and personal savings. Let’s not forget the underground economy too.

But when someone moves to different states just to increase their unemployment benefits I have to wonder.

As for healthcare, they can choose to stay on COBRA until their benefits run out then either go uninsured or apply for Medicaid.  The ER is the primary care choice for many.   It’s no wonder many ERs are cash strapped or have closed.

The corner stone for many is the $27,000 or more they get from the government (Unemployment + SNAP + Other Supplemental Income) per year to spend freely. Unfortunately this “nest egg” may give little incentive for some to return to work.  If you are single, why work until you’ve maxed out all the freebies possible.  I referred a job to someone last week and they passed on even investigating it.   Other business owners have also experienced the same phenomenon with “job seekers” in their 20s and 30s.   Jobs of up to $50,000/year are being turned down.

It’s interesting to note the Labor Department estimates they overpaid $7 Billion in unemployment benefits for 2009.   Meanwhile states are overburden with the sheer amount of cases and cannot always monitor whether someone is actually looking for a job or just in a holding pattern until benefits run out.

I believe in giving a helping hand and providing support to people who are in need and can understand buying organic foods to maintain your health.  I’ll even acknowledge that consumer spending needs to be primed in order to pull the economy out of a recession.  I’m just not happy about paying taxes to fund someone’s experimental cooking with exotic mushrooms.  What are your opinions?

© 2010 all rights reserved

photo credit: Cedric


  1. What u fail to miss is that unemployment benefits are not a handout. People have to pay into unemployment which is an insurance program;if they become unemployed then they are allowed to collect the benefit which they have paid for. I don’t know why many ‘it’s a govt handout’ opponents miss this simple fact.
    No one had a problem with unemployment benefits when we had 4% unemployment but now that we are officially @ 9.5% and barely avoided an economic depression and people are actually using these benefits as they were intended, the NIMBY’s are up in arms about the benefits and extension of the benefits.
    The argument that it is a disincentive is complete hogwash. The majority of people want to earn their money in a consumer based society and not receive govt benefits , so they can afford the lifestyle of their choosing.

    What you seem to have more of a problem with is how people use their benefit based off of your anecdotal evidence.
    So people pay more money for high quality organic food vs a can of processed preservative loaded meat product; that is an individual choice. When the benefit does run out and it will, they won’t have they will have to make another choice.

    1. First, in California, Individuals do NOT pay into Unemployment, the companies they work for do. Second, it has become far too easy to continue receiving benefits. While discussing unemployment with a friend of mine, he told me his had just run out, and his last few checks had told him he was not going to receive any more. Twenty minutes later, however, he checked his mail. In it was two envelopes from EDD. One of them was a check, the other was telling him he qualified for his THIRD extension. he never even applied for it, they just gave it to him. Also, I’d say a large percentage of people in California don’t actually look for a job while on unemployment. They like the government paying for everything for them because they don’t have to work for it.

      Also, don’t think I’m just talking down on those on unemployment. I happen to be waiting for my own unemployment check. However, while I realize it’s something that some people need sometimes, it’s not something you should sit on, collecting just so you can get your coconut water or name brand organic vegetables. The extra money you’re spending on Kraft instead of Alberston’s brand could be going to a mother who needs to feed her four kids. There’s only so big a pot, and when you indulge things like more expensive food when you don’t need to, you’re taking away from someone else.

      1. In Washington state, you have to show proof of applying for/going on interviews for THREE jobs per week go through a lengthy questionnaire every week in order to obtain unemployment benefits . My DH DID pay into unemployment before he was laid off.

  2. I would also like to add that I think it is ironic that the shoppers of organic, gourmet foods using food stamps are the well educated caucasian offspring of the financial juggernaut baby boomer generation; the very group that screams about paying taxes for govt subsidies.

    Somehow it doesn’t seem fair that ethnic minorities and poverty stricken trailer trash have to share their govt entitlements with city living artsy hipsters who have +$100k grad school degrees and can easily ask suburban living mom and dad for their credit card

    1. Unfortunately (but not always), the well educated tend to shop for healthier foods and tend to be healthier themselves compared to areas of poverty. On another spectrum, I’ve witnessed many a time shoppers with foodstamps seemingly wasting their benefits on absolute junk and unhealthy food.

  3. A wife and mother of 2 working in NYC office earns $750 per week, now take a look on basics…- tax ($200per week), – babysitter ($150 per week) – MTA ($40 per week).
    Total earnings by doing good work = ~ $360
    Rise own kids with peace of mind on unemployment = ~$350.
    Any suggestions ?

  4. Are you kidding? Whole-foods gourmet cheese buying 20-something hipsters are clearly the new straw man for people who don’t think there should be a safety net for decent hard working people. Are there slackers and cheats? Probably, but they are few and far between. Our real unemployment rate is around 17-20%. 50K jobs are not falling out of the sky.

    My husband’s unemployment check barely covers our mortgage, let alone food an utilities. I started a retail business 3.5 years ago and am not making any money even though I work full time. I am stuck in a lease for the shop and can’t get out of it even if I could find another job.

    Ironically, in our state we don’t qualify for any food assistance because we “earn” too much in unemployment.

    Yeah, this is the life! Too bad this can’t go on forever! (That was sarcasm, in case you missed it).

    Without unemployment we would lose literally everything we have within a few months because our savings would be completely wiped out.

    The question we should be asking is why can’t middle class college educated kids find jobs? Because there are no jobs. Because we are looking at the end of the middle class in America. Wake up.

  5. I don’t think there is anything wrong with choosing “luxury food” or “organic food”. Don’t you want these people to be as healthy as they possibly can? If not they will be using even more money from the government for health benefits. Whether they spend $300 per month on junk or $300 a month on healthy food, they amount of money won’t increase. They get that same amount each month based on what their income is. How is it your business on what kind of food they choose?

  6. Your title has no bearing on the essay. And, I disagree with your position, but if you want to grouse about somebody else’s personal purchasing habits that’s your cranky prerogative. Processed food is crap, and there’s no need to punish people who are already unemployed by making them eat crap if they don’t want to. If I had foodstamps I’d squander them with ecstatic joy on organic weetabix and hydroponically grown white asaparagus.

  7. For real people who wants to eat cheap food. I would buy the most expensive food and sit om my ass cause that’s what congress does!!!! Lol

  8. There are many people in this wonderful country of ours that are doing everything possible just to survive. Food stamps are nothing in terms of the amount of food you can buy. People are really hurting right now. The whole system is going to go down all at once.

    1. And there are many people that are doing the bare minimum to survive… and have been for generations. That’s WHY the whole system is going to go down all at once.

  9. The United States has become the first and only country in history where your likelihood of being morbidly obese is GREATER if you are poor. THAT’s the kind of society we’re building.

    Why in God’s name would you get up every morning and go to a low-paying job where people expect you to be on time, to be accountable and risk drug tests when you could stay at home on the couch, answer to no one and never risk a drug test for roughly the same amount of income?

    The old adage holds true – if the rule was ‘you don’t work then you don’t eat’, eventually you’d have 0% unemployment, one way or another.

    The destruction of this country isn’t being engineered in the boardrooms on Wall Street, its being chartered in the check-out lines at Wal-Mart where an unmarried mother of seven is whipping out the money the government pays her to breed, using it to fatten up her kids so that they will be a drain on our healthcare system, teaching them how to ‘get over’ on government assistance and failing to provide any positive role-models so that the ever-dwindling numer of taxpayers will have to foot the bill for their eventual, inevitable incarceration.


    1. Your comments, scary as they sound, are 100% true. I work in a very poor area in NYC. I am a city worker and have personally heard explanations for preference of unemployment from the people themselves. They have explained to me that they make far more money through subsides then they ever would at work. They have gone on to further explain that they welcome their children to have children because it secures the household even more money. They have down to a science. Problem is that you can find fault with them but you can’t blame them. This is exactly what our current government wants. The middle class has payed for this in spades. Our taxes fund these subsides……hello socialism

  10. I don’t know where you live, but I would be careful about your assumptions. In many places, unless you have kids or other family members not contributing to your income, you wouldn’t qualify for food stamps if on unemployment. The “income leve” is too high. That is the case here in DC. After years of being the only one in line who wasn’t paying with food stamps (and being annoyed that the person in front of me never had the qualifying item and helf up the line while they went to find it), I was excited to join the club after being laid off (I think that was time number two, but I lose track). I bought the cheapest house for miles and, unlike Alycia, unemployment does not even cover my mortgage payment. Heaven forbid that the mortgage assistance programs worked for people on unemployment. This time around, they have added a new program for the unemployed and if I ever get the approval, I will let you know. I also tried to apply for the utility assistance but the government operator who was about to direct my call informed me that they ran out of money. My previous employer closed so, guess what?, no COBRA. My insurance (the cheaper option) is almost $550 per month because I actually do need to use it sometimes so couldn’t risk going for the cheaper $2000 deductible option. When I looked up the government health care programs, well, Lord help me if I’m still unemployed by the end of the approval waiting period they supplied.
    So are there some people abusing the system? Sure. Are they few and far between? I think so. And, if you’ve seen what my linemates on food stamps at the grocery store are stuffing in their carts, it would make you cringe and you would be singing “Halleluja!” if they ever swapped out their day-glow orange cheese puffs for some organic cheese.
    Wishing I could love unemployment too!

  11. It’s mathematics, people. You should really watch Money is Debt or otherwise brush up on what happens when peoples wages stagnate while prices go up. Unemployment is a symptom of not enough demand for labor, and by that I mean not enough dollars being swapped about in the economy for everyone to earn a living. Even if some people, some token people, happen to abuse the system, at least it’s there for other people who really really need it. Because for a lot of people, it’s seriously unemp insurance / food stamps or dead on the street.

  12. I am that 20 something white lower middle class degenerate that is so often spoken of. Funny part is, I stumbled across this article trying to figure out if I was eligible for food stamps while also receiving my unemployment bennifits. I think it’s vary interesting how people outside of my relm of government subsidiesed living view me. I have been receiving gov assistance for the past 5-6 years off and on and this is the first time I have actually been unemployed during it. I was working a job for the past couple years making 10 an hour workin any where from 15-50 hours a week depending on when they needed me. I received the full amount of food stamps plus gov health care during this period and it was not a cake walk to get. I could easily live off my pay checks if I was not paying rent( and trust me, my rents fairly low), utility bills, phone bills, student loan bills and credit card bills( also mostly from school debit). After paying my bills every month I couldn’t afford much in ways of food. Before gov assistance I hit up all the food shelves and did a whole lotta dumpster diving( love it). When dumpster diving became inaccessible to me so it was time to go a new rout and trust me I was not proud of it. At least dumpster diving I could do in the middle of the night. Food stamps was degrading and a totall stap in the fact of how much I worked my ass off to get by. I’m over that feeling. I have excepted my degenerate lot in life. I currently do not have food stamps or health care do to the state messing up( which happens a lot and during the most inopportune times of course). To tie it all together, when I have food support your damn right I spend them on the nicer food, of course I go organic, because I can for I once. unless you are unfortane enough to recieve the lowest amount given, 16 $(which is a totall joke, and I have been awarded that on several occasions ). If you even have a slight idea how to cook you can take what little money you are granted and eat well for that month. Yeah I’m lower(lower) middle class but I am educated enough to know what processed food does to your body so I will not apologize if I don’t live up to this idea in your head as to how a poor person is stereotypically supposed to be living. I am happy in my life and I will continue to claw my way out of poverty and when I do I will continue to support the people that have less then me.

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