Friday, August 29, 2014

URSP Student Alexis Lahr Examines How the SNAP Policy Reduces the Ability of Recipients to Become Financially Independent

After I saw a presentation on URSP in my freshman year UNIV 100 class, I knew I wanted to participate in undergraduate research at Mason. The opportunity arose this past year when I worked as Dr. Bethany Usher’s research assistant. We got into a conversation one day about the SNAP (food stamp) cuts in Virginia, and she suggested I form a research project centered on my interest in federal aid. This past spring, I began an internship in a subsidized housing neighborhood, where I caught wind of an issue: people would struggle to gain employment or a promotion, only to be left worse off financially than they were when they were unemployed, because their higher income would eliminate their SNAP benefits. With Dr. Usher as my mentor, I began a research project that examined how the SNAP policy reduces the ability of recipients to become financially independent.

In a typical week, I spent most of my time scheduling interviews and compensation. Initially, I had trouble getting interviews. I soon reevaluated my recruitment techniques, and worked around the schedules of potential participants. This led to a few weeks where I spent a significant amount of time in the neighborhood, but my recruitment was very successful and I became a familiar face in the community. I knocked on doors and returned when people were free, and I spent a few later nights to accommodate individuals with different work schedules. A favorite moment in my research was when I had the opportunity to discuss my project at the neighborhood’s community meeting. I enjoyed getting to know the residents, and quite a few people came up to me afterwards to be interviewed.

The most desired and needed compensation for the residents was perishable produce and dairy, as opposed to the canned and dried foods typically given as donations. The URSP stipend cannot be used to purchase food, so I set up food donations from a local grocery store. I would pick up the food in the morning, and spend an hour or so organizing it into coolers and throwing away anything that was spoiled before going to the neighborhood. After I completed my recorded interviews, I would listen to them again and take notes. Additionally, I contacted many scholars in the field and conducted informational interviews with a few. I was particularly excited to interview Eli Saslow, a journalist for the Washington Post who wrote a narrative series on SNAP. His series sparked my initial interest in federal aid, and I remember Dr. Usher sharing one of his pieces with me almost a year ago. Pursuing research this summer has been an amazing experience- I got to know many of the residents of the subsidized housing community and learned things about SNAP and federal aid in our interviews that I would not have known from books or the internet.