SNAP Challenge Day 2: For The Cost of a Cup of Coffee

If you Google the phrase “for the cost of a cup of coffee“, you get about 1,390,000 results. And starting today, with the addition of the phrase to this page, you’ll get about 1,390,001 results. According to most of those results, you can save the world for the cost of a cup of coffee.

As you might have guessed from my seven cups of coffee yesterday, this phrase resonates with me. But it resonates in a bad way: Most of the people using this phrase are out of touch with middle class Americans. The price of coffee does seem to be a hot-button issue. According to Feeding America, what I’m  encouraged to blog about today is: “What have you cut out of your routine to stay on budget (e.g. COFFEE)?” My seven ounces of Vietnamese coffee from the dollar store isn’t half bad, but it’s not what I normally drink. I prefer the good stuff:

I normally get this coffee at WalMart for $2 a can. icon (Actually, I usually buy the large can icon for an even lower per ounce cost.) With the small can, I can probably make about a hundred cups of coffee. In other words, for me, “the cost of a cup of coffee” is about two cents. (I’m actually spending more this week, because the $2 coffee isn’t available within walking distance.)  While there are probably worthwhile things I can do with two cents, I probably can’t do what the other 1.39 million web pages think I can do, namely, save the world. This is why this particular phrase resonates poorly with me: It tells me that the person spouting the phrase is out of touch with middle America. Those 1.39 million web pages probably assume that I buy my coffee at Starbucks. I don’t know exactly how much a cup of coffee costs at Starbucks, but it’s considerably more than two cents. And at those higher prices, you probably can save the world. At the very least, you can save more of the world than I can for my two cents.

I strongly suspect that most of the 1.39 million people using the phrase probably wouldn’t even dream that the actual “cost of a cup of coffee” for most middle-class Americans is two cents. (Or perhaps it’s closer to five cents, since most middle-class Americans are probably not quite as cheap thrifty as I am.) Those of us on the right wing of the political spectrum take this attitude as very condescending. We normally forego the expensive Starbucks coffee, and instead opt for a good nickel cup of coffee. We strongly suspect that most of the 1.39 million do not make the same choice as we do. Perhaps we’re wrong, but when you tell us what we can do “for the cost of a cup of coffee”, we believe that you are drinking your $5 Starbucks coffee, feeling a bit guilty about it, but scolding us for drinking our own five cent cup of coffee. Well, if you want to score any political points with us, that attitude won’t serve you very well. Please don’t tell us how we can save the world with our five cents. We’re not going to listen to you.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the course of this week, I plan to offend just about everyone, and I believe I have done so with respect to my friends on the left. Don’t worry–I’m sure I will also offend my friends on the right. For those of you on the left, allow me to ease my conscience a bit and confess that the SNAP Challenge is, indeed, somewhat challenging. I seem to be doing better than most who took it. I have been careful not to buy Honeycomb cereal, popsicles, and $1.08 hard boiled eggs. If I make mistakes like those too often, I’ll go hungry. And as I look at my bag of self-rising flour, I realize that it’s possible I’ll run out. I might lament the fact that I didn’t spend 7 cents more to get a bag of regular flour and a can of baking powder. If I run out now, I’m stuck buying another bag for $2.99. If I had spent the extra 7 cents in the first place, I would now have the option of buying a bag of regular flour for only $1.77. Yes, there are decisions to make, and there are consequences for making bad decisions.

Low-income Americans and middle class Americans make these decisions every day. Many of my friends on the right find the SNAP Challenge to be condescending because the implicit assumption is that these kinds of decisions are faced only by those receiving government assistance. And, especially after we conclude that you are among the 1.39 million who spend $5 a cup for coffee, we also suspect that you rarely make these decisions yourself. You make it seem that budgeting for food is something new, and something faced only by those receiving government assistance.

If there’s a point to why I’m taking this challenge, it is to point out that budgeting is not something new, nor is it a necessity faced only by the poorest of the poor. It’s something that most Americans, whether or not they receive government assistance, do on a daily basis.  We don’t have any choice in the matter, since we can’t simply vote to increase our debt ceiling.  The only thing that I’m doing differently this week is documenting the process and making the process slightly more difficult than it would normally be.

Most Americans face similar challenges on a daily basis. And it’s not just food. Many middle class Americans are one paycheck away from disaster. A million things can go wrong. People get laid off from jobs, usually through no fault of their own. And if they have a job and the transmission goes out on the car they use to get there, then they’re faced with a huge expense and no money to pay for it. If they own a home and the furnace stops working, then they’re faced with another huge expense and no money to pay for it. Please don’t tell these people that they can save the world for the cost of a cup of coffee, because they can’t save the world for five cents.

As part of this challenge, I’ve discovered that food can be expensive. Actually, I already knew that. So when the taxpayers are asked for a few million dollars to help people in need, there is certainly a very strong argument to be made. My friends on the right will be quick to point out cases of fraud and abuse with the SNAP program and other forms of government assistance. I’m sure that many of those cases are true, but I also believe that most people receiving government assistance are receiving it only because of need, and most of those people are making the same kinds of wise decisions that I’m trying to make this week. In fact, I suspect that most of them are probably much better at it than I am. They’re probably laughing at how much I’m going to hate my self-rising flour by the end of the week.

So I am not opposed to spending a few million dollars of my tax money on the SNAP program, because, as you will correctly point out, there are people who need the assistance, and food is expensive. And this argument gets even more compelling when it’s pointed out that the money spent on programs like SNAP pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars that have been spent on corporate bailouts. Surely, if we can give Citibank trillions of dollars, then we can give needy families a few hundred dollars to buy food.

If you are saying that, then you are absolutely right. But that doesn’t solve the problem. You correctly point out that food is expensive, and we gave trillions of dollars to banks and corporations. But you need to take that realization one step further: Food is expensive because we gave trillions of dollars to banks, insurance companies, and others who didn’t deserve it. This money had to come from somewhere, and it came from a printing press (or the digital equivalent thereof). This has caused inflation in the price of basic commodities such as food.  Of course, the government statistics tell us that there is no inflation. But a trip to the supermarket tells us that those statistics are wrong.  In other words, the government is lying to us when it says that there is no inflation.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this new money never made it into general circulation. It’s sitting on the sidelines, doing nothing.  It’s not even earning interest, because the government can’t afford to pay interest on the national debt, and has conveniently set interest rates at zero percent.  None of this money is actually finding its way into the hands of consumers. Prices have gone up, and this is obvious to anyone who has visited a supermarket. The prices have gone up because those who have commodities for sale know that there are trillions of new dollars ready to be released into the economy at any second. But the holders of those trillions of dollars have not released them into the economy in the form of higher wages.  Of course, they don’t have to pay higher wages, because for those of us without a trillion dollars, there’s a Depression in progress.

At this point, it would be convenient to blame a faceless group such as “The Wall Street Bankers”. But I don’t know if it’s fair to blame them. They’re doing exactly what I would do if the government gave me a trillion dollars–I would hold on to it.  I wouldn’t spend it all at once. But if I go into the store to buy my bag of self-rising flour, and the seller knows that I have a trillion dollars in my pocket, then I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the price has gone up.

So yes, we probably have to spend a few million dollars to help low-income Americans deal this mess that we’ve created. But it is even more important that we clean up the mess. No, we probably shouldn’t cut SNAP benefits.  But it is critically important that we do cut the trillion-dollar bailouts. Unfortunately, once we’ve handed out newly printed dollars to corporations that are too big to fail, it’s probably impossible to get them back. But we have to stop doing it.  If a business is at risk of failing, then we need to realize that even though there might be short-term hardship, the failure of a business means that those assets could be better used by someone else. The bankruptcy courts have expertise in re-allocating those assets, and they should be allowed to do their job. But they’re not able to do their job if we print trillions of dollars and hand them out to failing businesses. Doing so will ease a little bit of short-term pain, but it will take a business that is already too big to fail and make it even bigger.

Now that I’ve offended my friends on the left, I’ll tell you that you are absolutely right when you say that we shouldn’t begrudge the poor a few million when we’ve already bailed out corporations with a few trillion. But your conclusion is wrong. The answer to the problem, at least in the long term, isn’t to give the poor a few more million. In the long term, the only solution to the problem is to stop giving trillions to the rich. Most of my left-wing friends probably agree with that philosophy. But unfortunately, you have failed miserably in implementing this policy. When the next failing company comes to you asking for trillions of dollars, you need to go with your knee-jerk reaction and tell them no. And you need to say no even though other left-wing politicians have rationalized why you need to do it just this one time.

What I Ate Today

Muffins

Muffins

Well, now that the political rant is over, you can read about what you came for, namely, what I ate. Last night, I made some muffins following the basic recipe in Joy of Cooking. That recipe called for flour, salt, and baking powder. Of course, I substituted the now familiar self-rising flour for all three. Also, where the recipe called for butter, I used margarine. Otherwise, I followed the recipe exactly.I ate a few of those muffins last night. I don’t normally eat a large breakfast, and this morning, I had some more of them for breakfast. I was a bit better prepared this morning, and was able to make my first cup of coffee early. I poured it into the travel mug and had the first of my many cups as I drove the kids to school.

For lunch, I decided to do something with the hamburger. I browned a third of it, and put the remaining ground beef in two packages which I froze for future use.

CREAMY BASIL HAMBURGER ONE TUBE RADIO SURPRISE

Lunch Day 2

Lunch Day 2

Prepare 6 oz. (1/2 box) pasta according to package directions. In skillet, brown 1/3 lb. ground beef. When brown, reduce heat and add 1/2 can Progresso Creamy Parmesan Basil Recipe Starters Cooking Sauce (or other condensed cream soup). Add one slice cheese, broken up. Simmer until cheese is melted. Drain pasta and combine.

I ate about half of this for lunch and put the leftovers in the refrigerator. It was a little on the bland side, so I’m glad I thought to take the salt and pepper from the store. I used about half a little packet of each.As you can see, I served this with some of the canned vegetables, some biscuits, Kool-Aid, and, of course, coffee.

For an afternoon snack, I warmed up two of my frozen pancakes in the toaster and had them with peanut butter.

Panera CEO Ron Schaich‘s  downfall, in addition to neglecting the importance of his coffee, was to rely on a single box of Toasted Oats cereal for his snack needs for an entire week. The box of cereal probably provides only about a thousand calories and set him back $2.59.

My hero, the Pillsbury Doughboy

On the other hand, my bag of flour contains a whopping 7300 calories, and the bag of sugar contains 6610, for a total of 13,910. In other words, assuming 2000 calories per day, the flour and sugar alone will take care of my caloric needs for the entire week. It’s just a matter of turning them into food.  Making a diet balanced and palatable requires additional ingredients.  But my basic caloric needs for the week are taken care of for $4.76 (or, as some might say, for about the cost of a cup of coffee).

As the rest of the family has beef stew from the crock pot for supper, I made myself

Supper Day 2

Supper Day 2

a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches and warmed up the rest of the ramen noodles from yesterday.  The Kool-Aid was starting to get low, so I added about a pint of water and some more sugar before pouring myself a glass.  I really couldn’t tell the difference.



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