In mid-May 2015, a purported photograph of a receipt resulting from a food stamp-funded transaction was posted to Facebook along with the caption “When you figure it out, comment your thoughts WITHOUT giving it away”:
The key to the presented puzzle was not obvious to all viewers.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” is one of the more controversial and divisive wedge issues in American politics, and rumors about its use, abuse, misuse, as well as its supposedly over-generous provisions spark recurring debates about welfare and its application in the United States. The archetype of the “welfare queen” is capable of inspiring uniquely inflammatory reactions among Americans, often divided between those who believe SNAP is a necessary barrier to poverty and those who feel its benefits discourage poorer Americans from working their way towards financial solvency.
Images of food stamp-related receipts have gone viral and inspired outrage, as have rumors that the SNAP program is slated to be discontinued, or that SNAP benefits were used to purchase marijuana, or that President Obama had introduced a law allowing food stamps to be accepted towards the purchase of pot and alcohol.
Some aspects of the receipt shown above suggest that what viewers are supposed to “figure out” about it may not be accurate.
The name of the store from at the receipt was purportedly generated isn’t clear in the image, but just below it is a phone number that belongs to a Detroit outlet called “Liquor Castle.” Food stamps are not accepted for liquor purchases in Michigan. Also, the receipt bears a legend reading “Closed to Food Stamp Purchase,” which suggests an attempted SNAP transaction did not go through or could not be processed.
As well, the receipt’s “Item Count” is numbered at three, but five entries are listed below it. One item was a deposit on a bottle, but the other four were purchased (non-alcoholic) items. (In Michigan, SNAP benefits may be used to cover bottle deposit fees [PDF].)
Finally, the balance listed is not only implausibly excessive but is impossible to accrue. Based on Michigan’s maximum payout for a family of eight on SNAP, a balance of the size shown ($15,464) would take more than 13 months to accumulate provided that the family did not use any of their benefits during that period. But according to the state, food and cash benefits that remain unused for a year are returned to the government [PDF].