When we were on the brink of transition, and facing the prospect of losing our income and home, we spent a lot of time crunching numbers. How much money would we need to survive for 3 months with no income? How about 6 months? We added up the costs for rent, insurance gas and upkeep for our 13 year old van, utilities, our life insurance policies, and diapers. And one of the costs I always included in my calculations was food.
It never even occurred to me to get food stamps. That was something “lazy” people got, who “didn’t work” and “lived off the government”. Even when times were tight in the past, we put food expenses on our credit card, never even considering that we might qualify for welfare. While we lived in Canada and experienced universal healthcare, my perspective changed a little, but I still saw government support as a shameful thing, even if I now saw it as necessary.
For most of our marriage we lived pretty comfortably financially. We paid our taxes. We have never missed a payment on anything and sometimes paid things off in advance. We are both oldest children, both fairly serious, and both lean toward the “saver” side of the spectrum vs. the “spender” side.
When Haley lost her job last year, we were starting over again, with a lot less. Moving from white-collar middle-class to blue-collar working-poor can be a jarring experience. We were lucky in so many ways! We were able to not only find affordable housing in a decent neighborhood, but we were also able to convince the landlord to give us a chance even though we were unemployed, because we had our little nest egg and were able to pay 4 months’ rent up front. Most people in our position do not have that starting point. We already had a car, in decent working condition, giving us the ability to drive to appointments and job interviews. With my non-existent resume I didn’t get work for 3 months, and when I did it was a trial part-time position, 10 hours a week at minimum wage. My first paychecks were under $200, even with 2 of them each month, that wasn’t enough to make rent, we had to use a loan and credit cards to keep up.
Do you know how much 4 kids eat? Do you know what it feels like to open the cabinet and see canned peas and canned chicken from the food bank? I’ve lived with little food before, but now it was my kids involved, and I wanted them to eat good healthy food.
So we decided to get help. First I called our food bank and they told me they would help walk me through the application process. We went for an appointment with a huge stack of important documents and filled out lots of paperwork. A few weeks later while Haley was in school, I bundled all the kids in the car and drove down to the county office and picked up our card. We stood in line with so many other people and their children. I got up to the front of the line and they processed my application and made copies of everything and explained that the food stamps card would only pay for food, not toiletries or diapers or garbage bags or alcohol. And the card wouldn’t pay for ready-to-eat type foods in the deli section of the store.
Did you know that being poor involves saying no a lot? When your kids ask for ice cream from the ice cream truck, you have to say no. (Even if you have a few dollars in your pocket from barista tips, you know you have to hang onto it for gas money, because there isn’t any other money.) When they want more than one pair of shoes, you have to say no. When the neighbor kid gets their own headphones and your child wants some too, you can’t get them. You wash the sheets and put them back on the bed because there aren’t any other sheets.
So when we are in the grocery store buying our rice, beans, cheese, fruit, veggies and pasta, and they ask for ice cream. I say yes. Because I am efficient enough with our allotment for food that I can afford to spare 2 dollars for a box of popsicles. And you know what? Sometimes I get some whip cream for myself, to put on top of my yogurt and granola. Sometimes working nights and watching the kids during the day wears you out, and we could not afford to go out to eat last year at all, even to fast food. So we would buy a couple of frozen pizzas, with our food stamps, for those rough nights where making a dinner wasn’t going to happen.
I don’t own an IPhone as these snarky meme’s suggest, but sometimes when I go to the store, I am in sweats. Because I changed out of my sweaty flour and sugar and coffee covered clothing when I got home from my 9 hour shift that started at 5 am. How that can look lazy to anyone is beyond me. And sometimes my wife has hair that looks nice, because she is a cosmetologist and her co-worker wanted to practice her skills highlighting hair and Haley was willing to try something different. Oh, and she knows how to do her nails nicely all by herself. Apparently that means we shouldn’t get food stamps? Because you know, if you look too nice that means you don’t need food stamps, and if you look too sloppy that means you don’t deserve them.
Let me stress again how lucky we are. We started over with a little cushion. We are not only in stable mental health, but we are physically capable of working jobs that wear on the body. We have no addictions pulling us under at a moment’s notice. We have a stable loving marriage and we pool our resources and don’t have to try to find affordable childcare since we can trade off caring for them and working opposite shifts. We even have our own wash machine in our apartment and we don’t have to spend our day off at the Laundromat. In some ways I hesitate to call us poor at all, despite what our tax return says. There are people who have so much less.
As my wages and hours go up, our food stamps get reduced. And then Haley got a job too and our food stamps got reduced accordingly. It funny how something that I was afraid to tell anyone is what has helped us keep everything rolling this first year as we started over again. My perspective on welfare and food stamps has continued to change. No one should have to feel ashamed for feeding their family. The people and the system that makes it even harder for the working poor to make ends meet are the ones who should be ashamed. When politicians try to say that you shouldn’t be able to get food if you own a car, they are forcing people to choose between working to get ahead and feeding their children. And yet these same politicians are perfectly fine spending large amounts of the taxpayer dollars on food for themselves. What does it take to see the humanity of families who can’t fit food into the budget? The SNAP program works. And the people using it should be able to eat.