A Social Experiment of One

Technically this is not truly an experiment. A social scientific experiment starts with a hypothesis, has a large sampling, includes a control group, and can be replicated by other social scientists with similar results.

Those of you who know me in person know that I have a heart for those outside of mainstream society. Who for whatever reason are living on the outskirts and impoverished. I am less concerned with what brought them to the situation they are in now, but what can be done to help them.

My local library system is promoting the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. It’s this year’s Ypsilanti Reads pick. This book has struck a cord with me. I have at a couple points in my life been in poverty, though never in the extreme poverty this book highlights.

One of the points discussed in chapter one is SNAP benefits (what we think of as food stamps). SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The average SNAP recipient receives $126 a month in benefits. Keep in mind this is an average – that means there are folks who receive more than this and some who receive less. Your income plays a role in exactly how much you qualify for. My social experiment of one investigates how a person can feed themselves three healthy meals a day on this amount.

SNAP benefits can only be used for the purchase of groceries. No alcohol,no tobacco products, no prepared food, no non-food products. Some of the things that cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits: diapers, rotisserie chicken, fast food, a sandwich from the deli section of the grocery, feminine products, cigarettes, beer, etc. You receive a debit card that is reloaded by the state each month. It is your responsibility to report any income change. A higher income means lower SNAP benefits, a lower income means higher SNAP benefits. Failure to report an income change can result in an accusation of fraud and loss of benefits.Some farmer’s markets now accept SNAP benefits in an effort to make healthy, fresh food available to recipients.There is a movement to exclude sugary foods in an effort to promote healthy eating – things like pop and candy.

A couple weeks ago I posted a series of questions on this topic on Facebook in an effort to bring awareness to my circle of friends. My initial question, “If you had $126 a month for groceries, what would you buy?” received answers ranging from one’s favorite food or beverage (coffee and cotton candy were a couple of the items mentioned) to advice on how to shop (shop the perimeter of the store where the raw ingredients are found) to books on how to live frugally. My second question, “How do you think I arrived at the $126 for my question,” generated answers ranging from it was my grocery budget to the correct answer of $126 is the average SNAP benefit. One friend posed the question, “What do you spend on average for groceries shopping the perimeter of the store?” I didn’t have an answer for her, though I had already been asking myself the same question. As I am not currently living in poverty I don’t keep close tabs on my food spending habits. I know I spend between $20 and $40 whenever I stop at the local Krogers. My experiment was born.Starting today, March 1st I will be sticking to a $126 monthly grocery budget. Originally I planned on doing the experiment for only a month. I may extend it to two months. We’ll see what happens.

A couple advantages I have over the typical SNAP recipient. I have a job that is not entry level and even though I’m giving myself a $126 budget, I don’t have the emotional stress of knowing that’s all I have. I can “cheat” at any time. That is one of the reasons I have decided to blog – knowing others are following what I am doing will keep me accountable. Secondly, I’ve been on SNAP before and know from experience what it takes to make those dollars last the month. Related, I have always been good at budgeting. This is a skill that has to be learned. I had a good example from my parents and being an avid reader I researched how to manage my money. This is a privilege that comes from having a good education and a solid background. Many SNAP recipients do not have this advantage. I can cook from scratch; everything from the most basic food to gourmet recipes. As such I keep a pantry stocked in the basics. This, too, is an advantage over someone who may struggle with housing on top of feeding ones self. If you are couch surfing or moving often you cannot stock up for a rainy day. I also do not live in a food desert. Krogers is a mile and a half from my home. I could walk there if I didn’t have a car. Which leads me to my last advantage. I have a car and the means to get to where I can buy food.

I thought about not allowing myself to pull from my larder, but decided against it. One reason is space – I do not need to double up on what I already have. My tiny kitchen could not take the added inventory. The second reason is I don’t believe in wasting food – if I buy a second of something – like  a jar of spice – I will need to toss at some point what I wasn’t able to consume. Yes, spices have shelf lives. What I did do is not go shopping for the last week. My perishables are consumed, mostly consumed, or expiring.

Starting today, the day after Fat Tuesday, I am living on $126 a month. This first week will be easy peasy as I have the above mentioned pantry and leftovers.I won’t be blogging every day as that will get boring to you, my readers. But, I will be blogging at least once a week.

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