WOONSOCKET, R.I. ? The economy of Woonsocket was about to stir to life. Delivery trucks were moving down river roads, and stores were extending their hours. The bus company was warning riders to anticipate ?heavy traffic.? A community bank, soon to experience a surge in deposits, was rolling a message across its electronic marquee on the night of Feb. 28: ?Happy shopping! Enjoy the 1st.?
In the heart of downtown, Miguel Pichardo, 53, watched three trucks jockey for position at the loading dock of his family-run International Meat Market. For most of the month, his business operated as a humble milk-and-eggs corner store, but now 3,000 pounds of product were scheduled for delivery in the next few hours. He wiped the front counter and smoothed the edges of a sign posted near his register. ?Yes! We take Food Stamps, SNAP, EBT!?
?Today, we fill the store up with everything,? he said. ?Tomorrow, we sell it all.?
At precisely one second after midnight, on March 1, Woonsocket would experience its monthly financial windfall ? nearly $2 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Federal money would be electronically transferred to the broke residents of a nearly bankrupt town, where it would flow first into grocery stores and then on to food companies, employees and banks, beginning the monthly cycle that has helped Woonsocket survive.
Three years into an economic recovery, this is the lasting scar of collapse: a federal program that began as a last resort for a few million hungry people has grown into an economic lifeline for entire towns. Spending on SNAP has doubled in the past four years and tripled in the past decade, surpassing $78 billion last year. A record 47 million Americans receive the benefit ? including 13,752 in Woonsocket, one-third of the town?s population, where the first of each month now reveals twin shortcomings of the U.S. economy:
So many people are forced to rely on government support.
The government is forced to support so many people.
The 1st is always circled on the office calendar at International Meat Market, where customers refer to the day in the familiar slang of a holiday. It is Check Day. Milk Day. Pay Day. Mother?s Day.
?Uncle Sam Day,? Pichardo said now, late on Feb. 28, as he watched new merchandise roll off the trucks. Out came 40 cases of Ramen Noodles. Out came 230 pounds of ground beef and 180 gallons of orange juice.
SNAP enrollment in Rhode Island had been rising for six years, up from 73,000 people to nearly 180,000, and now three-quarters of purchases at International Meat Market are paid for with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Government money had in effect funded the truckloads of food at Pichardo?s dock . . . and the three part-time employees he had hired to unload it . . . and the walk-in freezer he had installed to store surplus product . . . and the electric bills he paid to run that freezer, at nearly $2,000 each month.
Pichardo?s profits from SNAP had also helped pay for International Meat Market itself, a 10-aisle store in a yellow building that he had bought and refurbished in 2010, when the rise in government spending persuaded him to expand out of a smaller market down the block.
The son of a grocer in the Dominican Republic, Pichardo had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s because he expected everyone to have money ? ?a country of customers,? he had thought. He settled in Rhode Island with his brother, and together they opened a series of small supermarkets. He framed his first three $5s, his first three $20s and his first three $100s, the green bills lining a wall behind his register. But now he rarely dealt in cash, and he had built a plexiglass partition in front of the register to discourage his most desperate customers from coming after those framed bills when their EBT cards ran dry. The local unemployment rate was 12 percent. The shuttered textile mills along the river had become Section 8 housing. The median income had dropped by $10,000 in the last decade.
Of the few jobs still available in Woonsocket, many were part-time positions at grocery stores like his, with hours clustered around the first of the month.
Pichardo catered his store to the unique shopping rhythms of Rhode Island, where so much about the food industry revolved around the 1st. Other states had passed legislation to distribute SNAP benefits more gradually across the month, believing a one-day blitz was taxing for both retailers and customers. Maryland and Washington, D.C., had begun depositing benefits evenly across the first 10 days; Virginia had started doing it over four. But Rhode Island and seven other states had stuck to the old method ? a retail flashpoint that sent shoppers scrambling to stores en masse.
Pichardo had placed a $10,000 product order to satisfy his diverse customers, half of them white, a quarter Hispanic, 15 percent African American, plus a dozen immigrant populations drawn to Woonsocket by the promise of cheap housing. He had ordered 150 pounds of the tenderloin steak favored by the newly poor, still clinging to old habits; and 200 cases of chicken gizzards for the inter-generationally poor, savvy enough to spot a deal at less than $2 a pound. He had bought pizza pockets for the working poor and plantains for the immigrant poor. He had stocked up on East African marinades, Spanish rice, Cuban snacks and Mexican fruit juice. The boxes piled up in the aisles and the whir of an electronic butcher?s knife reverberated from the back of the store.
Late on the 28th, a boyfriend and girlfriend arrived at Pichardo?s register with a small basket of food. ?Finally! A customer,? Pichardo said, turning away from a Dominican League baseball game streaming on his computer. The last day of the month was always his slowest. The 1st was always his best, when he sometimes made 25 percent of his profits for the month. Pichardo rang up his last transaction of February: a gallon of milk, a box of pasta and a bag of discount cookies.
?That?s $5.28,? he said.
The boyfriend handed over his EBT card: ?Sorry. Running low,? he said. ?I only got $1.07 on there.?
The girlfriend handed over hers: ?I got $3.20 on this one.?
They paid the remainder of their balance with change, and Pichardo dropped it into his nearly empty register. Slow days reminded him of times when he had worked 14-hour days to avoid paying employees and once faced charges for selling stolen merchandise. But now, thanks to SNAP, he had scheduled four extra employees to work the next morning, when they would hand out free eggs to big spenders.
More: Food stamps put Rhode Island town on monthly boom-and-bust cycle - The Washington Post