Ruth Riley helps break down myths, misconceptions about food stamps

Ruth Riley, who played 13 seasons in the WNBA, worked with the No Kid Hungry summer meals program in 2012 while playing for the Chicago Sky. Illinois No Kid Hungry Campaign

Late last month, as Ruth Riley was preparing to testify before the U.S. Congress about her experience as a child whose family was in the food stamp program, she went to talk to her mother, Sharon.

"It was the first time I think I really understood the circumstances around my childhood from a more adult perspective," Riley said. "My mother always shielded us a lot. But now, knowing what to ask, I had a deeper understanding of the sacrifices she made and the reality of our situation."

The reality is that 15.3 million children in America live in "food insecure" homes -- or households that "experience limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods at some point during the year" -- according to statistics from Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that strives to end child hunger in the United States. Two in five American children will spend at least one year of their childhoods in poverty.

The impacts are far-reaching. According to Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, it's 43 percent less likely that a persistently poor child will get a college education, and 31 percent more likely that a food-insecure child in America will be hospitalized at some point in his or her childhood.

Riley spoke to Congress on Oct. 27 on the importance of the food stamp program, known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She advocated against cuts to the program, citing her own experience as a child whose family relied on food stamps. Riley shared the story of her single mother working a variety of jobs to support her three children, and said she watched her mother pay for groceries with what looked like "Monopoly money."

"People tend to have a stereotype of who is hungry and who is not. ... When people see someone like Ruth, who went on to become an Olympic athlete, it can be really powerful." Billy Shore, Share Our Strength founder and CEO, on Ruth Riley

Riley went on to graduate with honors from Notre Dame. She won a national championship in 2001, two WNBA titles and an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in 2004.

Riley's relationship with Share Our Strength and its No Kids Hungry campaign began at the 2012 NBA All-Star Game.

"There was a booth set up at one of the 'Jam' sessions and I signed a pledge sheet. I just thought I was signing my name to a sheet with a lot of names on it. There were thousands of people there," Riley said. "I started talking with the rep there and they were about to launch a campaign in Illinois and I was heading to Chicago for the WNBA season."

She told her story and offered to help. Riley is now one of the organization's most powerful spokespeople.

"There is an authenticity to her personal story," Share Our Strength founder and Chief Executive Officer Billy Shore said. "People tend to have a stereotype of who is hungry and who is not. But her story makes people stop and think. There may be a lot of young kids out there, maybe raised by a single mom, who have drive and ability and innate talent who maybe need a little assistance.

"It's such a huge return on our investment. And when people see someone like Ruth, who went on to become an Olympic athlete, it can be really powerful."

Shore said Share Our Strength has been careful about attaching itself to celebrities, athletes and entertainers.

"We want people who are talking about this for the right reasons," he said. "Ruth is doing this for the right reasons."

Riley hopes to convey the message that "every kid has potential and if these programs aren't there, that potential might not be realized."

"I've always had a lot of support from people who didn't know my full story," Riley said. "People see what they perceive is an 'All-American girl' and make assumptions. Even I was surprised to find out later that there were people I grew up with, that I didn't know they were in the same situation. And that was an 'aha' moment for me, that we could help people, if there wasn't such a stigma and people felt comfortable talking about it."

Five myths and misconceptions about SNAP in America

1. People on food stamps (SNAP) don't work. According to a 2013 article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so.

"Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP," the article reads, "and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children -- more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year."

Many SNAP recipients cannot work. According to Share Our Strength, 44.7 percent of SNAP recipients are under the age of 18 and two-thirds of those live in single-parent households. Approximately 20 percent of recipients are elderly or on disability

2. SNAP is a drain on taxpayers. According to the USDA, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity. The ability of families to receive SNAP assistance frees up money for families to spend on transportation, medical care, clothing, home repairs and child care.

3. Fraud and abuse is a significant issue with SNAP. According to the statistics provided by the USDA, SNAP's accuracy rate in providing correct benefits to low-income people is 96.34 percent.

Of the 3.6 percent error rate, 0.7 percent is underpayment, and 2.96 percent is overpayment. The error rate has been falling for more than a decade.

As a point of comparison, the SNAP error rate was 8 percent in 2002. The rate of SNAP benefits that were "trafficked" -- sold for cash or traded for goods -- dropped to 1.3 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the USDA.

4. People use SNAP to buy cigarettes and alcohol. According to the USDA, households may use food stamps to buy foods, such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. Also, they can buy seeds and plants which produce food to eat. (In some areas, restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.) Households may not use food stamps to buy beer, wine or liquor; cigarettes or tobacco; pet foods; soaps; paper products; household supplies; vitamins and medicines; food that will be eaten in the store; hot foods.

5. Most people are on food stamps for life. Most households under the SNAP program receive benefits for a six-month period before requiring renewal.

SNAP has strict time limits for unemployed workers. Able-bodied adults without dependents may receive only three months of SNAP during a three-year period unless they are working in a qualifying job-training program. Benefits decline based on every dollar a SNAP participant earns.