When Stories Show What Data Can’t

Changing the narrative about food assistance

Read the stories at snapstories.codeforamerica.org

In the United States, there is a great deal of stigma around government assistance programs. The social safety net is made up of 80 programs that, together, kept 44 million Americans out of poverty in 2017. Yet many people have an incredibly narrow idea about who relies on government assistance and why — such as the inaccurate stereotype of “makers vs. takers.” In fact, most people helped by the safety net are experiencing situations of financial instability that are quite common, and those who rely on programs like food assistance (SNAP) often have to overcome shame to seek help.

“I hate to ask for assistance, but I don’t know what else to do.” — CalFresh applicant from Butte County

At Code for America we run GetCalFresh.org, which helps more than 30,000 households apply for food assistance each month. The goal of GetCalFresh is to help close the SNAP participation gap in California, which is nearly 30% — meaning that three in ten Californians who could be receiving money for food are not. And many of those people are in the gap because they are deterred by the stigma around the program.

We see this stigma every day in our work. In their CalFresh applications, users can share information helpful to eligibility workers in a free text field. Many use that space to explain why they are applying for food assistance. Some applicants apologize for needing help. Some state that shame caused them to wait until now to apply. People who have never relied on safety net services before often assume those programs are meant for “other people.” The truth is that food assistance is a way of coping with being unable to make ends meet — a challenge all kinds of people confront at some point in their lives.

“I have a brain tumor that has left half of my throat and mouth paralyzed…. I consider healthy food to be medicine.” — CalFresh applicant from Yolo County

Stigma marginalizes and isolates, but in the case of food assistance, it also delays people from getting back on their feet. We know that stigma especially affects certain groups, such as seniors. Reading our users’ stories prompted the GetCalFresh team to ask ourselves what we could do to help fight stigma.

The stigma around food assistance is based on myths about who is poor and who relies on government assistance. Normally, when you want to correct misconceptions, you look for good evidence. Yet, there is already plenty of solid research showing that the stigma around food assistance is unwarranted: Fraud is rare. Benefits can only be used to buy food. Most beneficiaries are children, seniors, or adults with disabilities. Of adults without disabilities, most are working or between jobs.

These findings have not dispelled the myths around food assistance. They simply don’t resonate as much as sensational stories about cheating or laziness, despite those stories having little basis in fact. As a data scientist at Code for America, I spend my days immersed in statistics. I’ve analyzed the data from over half a million GetCalFresh applicants, and the numbers directly dispute these myths. Yet I know from trying to communicate my work that we all tend to remember examples, especially those involving real people, much more clearly than we do collections of data points. Without the scaffolding of a story, statistics are easy to forget.

snapstories.codeforamerica.org allows visitors to explore applicant stories and data from their county

So instead of just reciting the statistics from the existing research to combat stigma, we decided to make those findings memorable by grounding them in hundreds of our users’ stories (shared with their permission). On their own, these stories are often a snapshot of a moment in a person’s life. Taken together, they illustrate the struggle to make ends meet in California, and the common setbacks that push people into a crisis. They are about eminently relatable situations: seeking better work, finishing college, keeping a home, raising children, or caring for an ailing family member. In general, the stories reflect the circumstances and setbacks that other researchers have found lead people to enter poverty (see here and here). Hearing from CalFresh applicants in their own words, it’s clear that they value self-sufficiency, don’t want to be on food assistance for an extended time, and are working hard to improve their situations.

“We were going through a crisis due to my husband’s inability to work because he became disabled…. Things are going much better now but I am grateful everyday for this program.” — CalFresh applicant from Humboldt County

A critical advantage these stories have over the misleading anecdotes that fuel stigma is that common experiences are by definition more relatable and easier to imagine. We wanted readers to understand our users’ struggles, and to also see themselves in those struggles. As you read their stories, ask yourself: If it weren’t for the stigma around food assistance, aren’t these the kinds of reasons you would expect people to seek it out?

Stigma is spread by stories — often propelled by the media — that paint a false picture of people taking advantage of the system. We built snapstories.codeforamerica.org to reflect the realities of our users as best we could. We encourage you to share the site with your colleagues and friends (journalists: we’ve used a Creative Commons license) to change the narrative about why people need food assistance — and to break down the stigma that stops so many others from seeking it out.


A huge thanks to my colleagues Julie Sutherland and Lou Moore for their help in thinking through, designing, and building the snapstories site, as well as their contributions to this post