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When It's Hard to Make Ends Meet, Can Smart Apps Help?

Monday, February 04, 2019

When It's Hard to Make Ends Meet, Can Smart Apps Help?

"First of two articles.

The recent partial government shutdown could have been a disaster for the 38 million Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

But the United States Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, saved the day. Along with their usual January benefits, SNAP’s users received an extra payment on Jan. 20 — the one they were supposed to get in February.

This outcome was a product of heroic bureaucratic wrangling on the part of the Agriculture Department and the states, which administer SNAP. It saved millions of people from a month of severe hunger.

But the early money has a downside. “If I’ve got five bucks extra, my pocket wants to burn it,” said Katie Stoneman, a 31-year-old divorced mother who lives in the countryside near Elsie, Mich. “It’s human nature to see a large number and be more inclined to spend that,” said Jeff Kaiser, the chief operating officer of Propel, which makes an app called Fresh EBT to help people manage their SNAP benefits.

Ms. Stoneman has children ages 5 and 9, and for the last three years has received SNAP even while working in a pontoon boat factory. “It didn’t pay enough to get me off of SNAP,” she said. “Not even close.”

SNAP pays $192 a month for her family (about $2 per person per day), and she usually makes it last three weeks, she said — longer than many people. A study by Duke University’s Common Cents Lab, which applies behavioral science to the problems of low-income people, found that 80 percent of benefits get spent in the first nine days. “When you give people $10 and they really need $15, there’s only so much coping and budgeting they can do,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit that addresses poverty-related hunger..."

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