Should food stamp benefits also pay for pet food?

For the 45 million Americans currently receiving benefits through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly “food stamps”), the rules are simple: You can use the benefits “for food and for plants and seeds to grow food for your household to eat.” 

According to the rules, you cannot use SNAP to purchase alcohol, tobacco, medicine, hygiene products, or — to the dismay of animal owners  — pet food. It’s this last constraint that’s become the focus of a new petition from Edward B. Johnston Jr., a low-income pet owner in Mississippi.

Photo: Getty Images

“Unfortunately, SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy pet food, leaving poor families with pets in a difficult position,” Johnston writes on a Care2 petition calling for pet food to be included in the benefits. “I am one of those Americans. I have only been on SNAP benefits for a few months, but I have been unable to feed my little dog due to government regulations.”

To qualify for SNAP, a household’s income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. For a family of three, this equals $26,600 a year, or $2,213 a month. The program itself dates back to the 1960s, when it was utilized by an average of 5 million people a year. Today, the program serves more than nine times that number and is a highly divisive political issue.   

While most liberals see SNAP as an efficient way to support vulnerable members of society, many conservatives consider it, as the Washington Post put it, “entitlement spending gone wild.” The latter group is unlikely to be amenable to add pet food costs to what is already a $70 billion yearly cost. President Trump certainly is unlikely to direct any more money SNAP’s way, either.

Since taking office, Trump has made moves to shrink the size of the program by as much as $193 billion over the next 10 years, as well as tighten the restrictions to prohibit those out of work from gaining access to the benefits.

Given the current landscape, an argument that pet food be allowed under the SNAP program seems one that’s unlikely to be won. But Johnston is pushing ahead and finding many others who support the cause. By Friday afternoon, his petition had received more than 91,000 signatures, just shy of its 95,000 goal. 

In the comments section, supporters from California to Hungary are leaving explanations as to why they’re supporting the movement. “[Due to] the Gig Economy and income insecurity, some perfectly responsible pet owners may temporarily find themselves in straitened circumstances,” writes Melinda from New York. “[They] shouldn’t have to give up a beloved pet.”

“Pets are like family, and we have them before we hit any financial difficulty,” an anonymous user adds. “We should not have to give up a family member because we can’t afford pet food. It is very inhumane and causes stress to those who may already depressed about their situation.”

There is an argument to be made that those living under the poverty line should have to give up pets that they can’t afford, but there is another one to be made for the value of pet owners keeping their animals. 

In the psychology world, a wealth of research exists showing that pets can help alleviate mental health issues — something that those in poverty face in disproportionately high numbers. Among the conditions for which having a pet has proved beneficial are depression, anxiety, bipolar, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Whether or not Johnston’s petition makes it past the web remains to be seen. But based on the comments, it seems some low-income pet owners are simply happy to have their voices heard.

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