Corroborating Food Stamp Usage:  The Chicken Factor

While questions continue about whether monetary policies will spur inflation that affects families, other news pertains to the new levels of food stamp usage as more Americans are forced to turn to government assistance for food purchases.  But there’s also been an uptick in stories about food stamp fraud.  Whether the cause is due to a disbelief that such numbers could truly be that bad or – in one of my more cynical moments – the notion that the the stage is being set for placing limits on further food stamp aid by framing the program as fraud-riddled, the fraud stories are occurring.  Since it’s sometimes difficult to know who to believe, it’s helpful to find a separate data point to corroborate the facts, one way or another.  In my own case, I’ve come to notice that there are suburban, seemingly middle-class families who are now raising chickens in the backyard for food; I’ve come to refer to this as The Chicken Factor. 

Through years of media exposure, the image of a family with chickens is one of a ramshackle rural home in the midst of nowhere, one or more paint-peeling shutters slightly askew.  The family can charitably be called redneck or hillbilly, dressed in unkempt clothing.  But what I’m starting to see, and it’s still only three instances, is a comfortable middle-class style home with fenced pens to accommodate chickens.  Each home also has a significantly sized garden in which to grow food that’s being used for the family’s consumption.  I first became aware of it about two years ago when a family that I knew had Youngest over to play and when I entered the backyard, found a well-tended garden and chickens running loose out of their pen.  This can considered an isolated instance but for the past three months.  The first additional evidence was during a trip to Lowes when I stopped by the how-to book section and found a stylish, glossy book on how to raise chickens.  The second additional evidence is that I’ve noticed two other houses with both vegetable gardens and small chicken coops and pens.  One is also in a circa-1960s middle-class neighborhood and the other is a neat, older home in a more rural setting; regardless however, the incongruity of it is jarring

One of the suburban homes sits on a street corner so that, sans-fencing, the work being done is open for all to see and it’s frankly impressive for the work that’s being put into it.  The house had become slightly unkempt as it sat for sale for months on end, the yard cluttered with branch debris from the older trees that clustered the driveway and lot boundaries.  Then the sign disappeared and a remodeling contractor’s pickup truck appeared in the driveway and as it remained there through the various days that I drove past, it became apparent that it belonged to the new owner and not just a contractor.  What the family has done to the house is akin to a suburban, 21st century version of Little House in the Suburb as the debris has been cleared and the majority of the trees felled and stumps removed, the trees cut up into firewood and neatly stacked into cords for next winter’s consumption.  An inexpensive playset – not one of the costly monstrosities – belies the fact there are small children and while the yard has been restored, there is now a large garden plot and…a fenced-in henhouse. So while I can’t speak for the third house, I can attest that the two suburban homes belong to young families with small children. 

With the onset of the recession after the Financial Crisis of 2008, community and church ministry gardens began to spring up to provide fresh vegetables for stretched food banks.  This could at first be seen as a stop-gap measure until things improved; I recall that my hometown allocated community garden space for citizens during the problematic 1970s but with the recovery in the 1980s, this land was converted to park space and is now heavily landscaped and unusable in any practicable sense for food production.  But these church/community gardens are now continuing and the demand from the food banks continues unabated.  I know of two such garden programs – in separate parts of the country – that are cumulatively providing tons of fresh produce for the food banks each season and they are expanding. 

The upshot of these datapoints is this.  As family incomes drop, by approximately 7% since the start of the Obama administration, the food supply issues reveal that what our young families are facing isn’t a bump-in-the-road that can be waited out but instead a much poorer road.  Homeownership rates might have dropped to 15 year lows but the young families are reverting back even further than that to practices not seen since the times of their great-grandparents.  The gardens might be a decent hobby or something nostalgic reminiscent of the World War Two Victory gardens, but combining the ongoing community/church gardens with chickens strongly indicates that the families are resetting to a far different set of expectations than with which they were raised. 

What I find unsettling is that two of the three henhouse/garden scenarios occur on properties from which the backyard is openly visible from the road.  What’s going on amongst the many houses with fenced yards or properties obscured otherwise?  Should there be substantive discussion about controls on the food stamp program, my recommendation would be that the government google recent satellite photos to ascertain what’s occurring in the yards that we can’t see from the street. 

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