Food riots

On Saturday, the EBT cards for the SNAP program (what most of us still think of as “food stamps,” I believe) went down for about 22 minutes. At first people thought it was part of the government shutdown (and even threatened to riot) but it turns out to have been an incredibly unlucky coincidence.

When the computers were brought back online, apparently the spending limits weren’t in place yet. And in some places, people pretty much used this as an opportunity to loot the store with their cards.

If you don’t feel like looking at the link, people charged eight to ten shopping carts full of food on their EBT cards at some WalMart locations. Then when the announcement came that the EBT cards were back online with their full limits again, people just abandoned their carts in the aisles.

Here’s the thing: we know this is wrong. From the outside, it’s theft. It’s fraud (and apparently welfare fraud bans you from the system for life, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next. The computers might not have known how much the limits were, but I bet they were keeping track of who used the cards and how much went on them.)

I don’t know if they’ll ban those individuals for life, but I’d sure as heck ban them from my store. And it would be appropriate if they got their SNAP benefits garnished at 25% a month until they paid it all back.

But what kind of mentality leads to that kind of action? From the outside, these individuals are getting free food from the government. They’re getting free food. It may not be a lot of free food, but how many other major world empires have given out free food to their citizens just because the citizens were having a tough time? Do you think you could just go down to the government office in Ancient Greece and ask for free food? (Apparently you could in Ancient Rome.) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books would be totally different if Pa could just have gone down to the mercantile and asked for a few free sacks of flour and a few dozen free eggs.

My first thought is, really, that the people who could even consider this aren’t people who’ve ever really faced hunger.

I know people who’ve reluctantly signed up for help feeding their families because life just got away from them. Unexpected medical bills, sudden job loss, other issues that could happen to anyone. They’d made responsible decisions all their lives, worked hard, and now the system they’d worked to support was going to get the privilege of supporting them until they were back on their feet.

I cannot imagine anyone starting with the relief that comes from knowing someone will help, then turning around and taking hundreds of dollars in food.

Where’s the mentality coming from, then? It’s got to be that some people view the government assistance as a game. It’s part of a game you play, the game of getting as much as you can, winning whatever you can grab. Working the system right, filling out the right forms, giving the right answers. And then, when you find a loophole, using the loophole. Because the system isn’t something you’re contributing to — it’s something you live within and therefore something you are to some extent trying to manipulate. There’s got to be anger. And maybe there’s got to be hopelessness.


  1. nantubre

    amen amen amen. I agree with you 100%. There are a couple of generations of people who don’t know what life is like outside of government assistance. It’s a crying shame.
    for most people, assistance is needed and appreciated because a serious need has necessitated it. Unfortunately there will always be those whose government assistance is generated by the unwillingness to work or break the generational tradition.
    No wonder the government is bankrupt.

  2. The Cellophane Queen

    There are people who will take advantage everywhere. For example, the bankers jamming out subprime mortgages which just about ruined the US economy. But the bankers weren’t desperate for food, they were just incredibly greedy and taking advantage of the lack of regulation.

    As for free food, my local food bank does just that: gives away food to anybody who asks without question. Some people game the system, sure, but the majority are just grateful for the help because the SNAP benefits simply don’t last a full month.

    Yes, I believe the people who raided two Walmarts in Louisiana were wrong to do this. But the credit limit failure was across 17 states. I guess the cheaters only live in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country.

    Desperation can get really ugly.

    1. philangelus

      I think most other grocery stores wouldn’t honor the EBT cards until the system was fully back online, and it was only those two stores in LA that didn’t follow the procedure. (A $50/day limit, according to the article.) And yeah, our local food pantry gives food to anyone who needs it. I don’t know of people trying to take eight carts of food from our food pantry, but then again, they may not have eight carts of food to give away sometimes. Maybe when people know it’s been donated, it feels less free?

      I don’t understand. I’ve never been that desperate. But these people weren’t in danger of starving — they could have gotten the amount they usually got, and they’d have had food. What baffles me is the idea of looting just because the computer glitched.

      1. cricketB

        $50 per visit? Another case of the person writing the rules not knowing who he’s writing them for.

        Many people without money are also short of time. Best case, they have a car. Assume 30 minutes round trip. Every day. With toddlers, or pain, or wrong clothes for the weather, or a mental disorder that makes running errands extremely stressful. Plus visits to the doctors or school or employment agency or retraining or therapy. Now imagine no car.

        With the electronic cards, surely they can track monthly spending. Enough flexibility to buy in bulk and save a bit. Save a bit of time for more important things.

        1. Jane

          $50 is the emergency limit when for some reason the card isn’t working. I agree a regular $50 limit would be unreasonable.

          1. cricketB

            That makes more sense.

  3. Megan

    I’m having a hard time working up any indignation over this one. It kind of reminds me of when my parents were doing foster care. They never experienced this, but it was a pretty well-known thing that with some kids you had to keep locks on the fridge, pantry, etc. Because when they’ve spent 7 or 8 years never knowing where their next meal is coming from and suddenly they’re faced with what seems like a limitless amount of food, they will eat themselves sick and/or “steal” food and hoard it.

    Now imagine that you’ve been food-insecure for 25 or 30 or 50 years, and one day without warning your one reliable source of food disappears and you think it might be gone forever. That’s a recipe for blind panic. When it comes back, you aren’t going to think, reasonably, “Oh, it’s back now, let’s return to business as usual.” Instead your gut is going to take over and tell you that you should get as much food as you possibly can now because you might never, ever get another chance.

    (Of course, it’s still possible that the looters were just greedy. But I’m inclined to cut them some slack.)

  4. Ken Rolph

    You may remember the London riots of 2011. Many of those involved were younger, poorer and less educated. Looting was widespread among all sorts of shops. Although it seems the only shops which escaped were bookshops. There are simply now large groups of people who are minimally connected with the rest of their society. They are not ragged beggars of the old Shakespearian variety. They have mobile phones and are aware of their “entitlements”, although many live by casual employment. They just need to be let off the leash. It is surprising that we don’t hear more from them.