My name is Christine, and I get food stamps. I've had to apply off and on over the past 16 years in order to make sure my family was fed. I don't feel the least bit ashamed of myself for this, but apparently some people think I should.
Some people think I, and people like me, am lazy. Or that we're taking advantage of other (smarter, harder-working) people. Those people seem to have an image in their heads of how someone who "deserves" assistance behaves, and a very narrow idea of how we should feel about it.
Those people are wrong. I'm going to lay out why they're wrong and also why it's not shame I feel when I fill out my application — it's anger.
1) I do it for my kids
I've been poor for most of my adult life, with the occasional foray into struggling. My first job was working at Taco Bell in college. Since then, I've worked mostly in the food service industry. I've worked fast-food, casual dining, and high-end restaurants. Once or twice I've picked up work as a clerk at gas stations and convenience stores. The job with the best pay and benefits was as kitchen supervisor at the county jail, which involved running herd on up to eight trustees for 12 hours a day while they cooked breakfast and lunch for the other inmates. What all of these jobs have in common is low pay, often brutal or unpredictable hours, and an element of personal danger. They are not easy jobs to do, and I'm proud of my skills, but I've never made more than $11 an hour at any of them.
When it's just me, an adult who can make her own choices, I can choose not to eat. Or to eat cheap junk that at least provides enough calories to keep going. I cannot make that same choice for my kids. They have to eat, they have to eat every day, and they have to eat enough of the right food for their bodies and brains to develop. The government's WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program helped a little, and I learned a few things at the weekly classes it mandated, but toddlers eat more than babies and our rent had just gone up and there were two adults but only one of us had a job. So I signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known colloquially as food stamps) for the first time when my older child was about 2 years old.
My hand shook the first time I filled out the forms, and my voice probably squeaked during the interview when they went over the information I provided. But when I was approved, I felt nothing but relief. We kept our SNAP benefits for about a year, and then things got a little better and we decided not to try to renew them. Which brings me to my second point.
2) I don't do it all the time
I've never used SNAP for more than about 18 months at a time. I use it when I need it, when the situation is such that I can't pay my bills and buy groceries at the same time. When I'm underemployed, when my expenses rise, when an emergency repair or doctor visit cuts into my income.
After that first stretch, I didn't go back to SNAP for almost three years. Then suddenly I had two kids, a divorce, a single, crappy job, and all of the expenses of a household on my head. I went back to food stamps. At least the baby would have formula, the older child would have chicken soup, and I wouldn't have to walk a mile and a half to work on three crackers and a cup of tea.
Worried about chemicals leaking into canned food? I'm a lot more worried about getting enough calories.
I'd scour the weekly ads for the best sales, and then my mother and I would get together on my day off and do my weekly grocery shopping. There was also a grocery store next to the restaurant where I worked, and sometimes I'd pop in there on my way home for milk or bread, but I tried not to do that too often because it just made the trip longer and there's only so much you can carry in a backpack. I was lucky because I worked during the day, which meant I could at least try to cook a real meal once a day for my family. Not everyone has that luxury.
3) Cheap, nutritious, convenient: You have to pick two
I cringe when I see what celebrities and politicians buy when they try the "food stamp challenge" — when they try to live for a certain amount of time on the food budget allowed by SNAP (around a dollar or so per person per meal). I believe that for the most part, they are genuinely trying to do something positive, but it only shows the disconnect between "them" and "us." They go to whatever grocery store they usually patronize, they pick out what they normally eat. It never seems to occur to any of them that someone who relies on food stamps might have completely different shopping needs.
If you're working a full-time job — or more than one job — you have a limited amount of time to prepare food. If you're relying on public transportation or carpooling with friends, family, or coworkers, you probably have even less time. It's possible to eat a reasonably nutritious diet on food stamps, but it takes time and creativity and some compromises.
My larder relies on a few staples: canned beans and tomatoes, potatoes and onions, canned tuna, bouillon cubes. Rice and noodles. A few canned or frozen veggies. Dried beans and lentils for days I have time to cook them properly.
Fresh veggies are pretty much limited to carrots, celery, and the occasional head of cabbage or broccoli. They keep a lot longer than other veggies, and the kids will eat them raw for snacks. Protein is usually chicken — I can get a 10-pound bag of leg quarters for $7.99, split them into smaller bags, and freeze them separately. Occasionally when I find sausage on sale, I'll buy several packages and freeze that too. Hamburger is cheaper than steak but not as cheap as chicken, and sometimes pork steaks are cheaper than beef of any kind, so I guess it's a good thing we don't have any religious restrictions on our diets.
Fruit? Bananas, or sometimes apples or oranges when they're in season and therefore on sale. Maybe a melon in the summer when they're dirt cheap.
Organic? Nope. Precut? Double nope. Worried about chemicals leaking into canned food? I'm a lot more worried about getting enough calories to keep going. Past the sell-by date? Still good to eat.
There are "quick meals" and frozen dinners and faster options that are reasonably healthy, but they aren't available on a food stamp budget. It's also possible to fill a larder full of cheap pot pies and ramen noodles to last a month, but those are full of excess salt and fat and not much else. Not good for growing bodies.
4) No, I can't just "cut back"
Everything I've just described are realities that I deal with. I'm not ashamed of any of it; it's just what is. What makes me burn is when people look at me and assume that there's something I could give up and then I wouldn't need any assistance at all. I have a car. I have a cellphone. I have a solid internet connection that I pay for. I'm not giving up any of those, because they are not luxuries. They are absolute necessities. Yet some people seem to think I don't need those things — or that I don't have a right to them if I can't buy groceries as well. Allow me to enlighten them.
My rent is dirt cheap because my grandparents bought a house on the edge of town and rent it to me. Public transportation in my city is a joke — there are no els or subways, the buses stop running at 10 pm and don't reach the outskirts of town, and if you have to transfer, a trip can take two hours one way due to the ill-designed hub system. If I want to work, I have to have a car. Let me emphasize that point: If I want to work, I must have a car. But a car is somehow a "luxury."
It makes me burn when people assume I could give something up and then I wouldn't need assistance
I have a cellphone because people need to be able to contact me no matter where I am. I have older relatives who need help sometimes and two children who are often doing different things at different times of the day. I have a fiancé who does not live with me and works an opposite schedule. The phone is a cheap one, and the plan is prepaid rather than a contract, allowing more flexibility if I run short and just can't quite get my payment in on time. The amount I spend monthly on the phone wouldn't cover even a week of groceries, but for some reason there are those who think I should abandon it or I somehow don't "deserve" public assistance.
My older child is terrifyingly brilliant and enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. My second looks to follow next year. This means a lot of homework that is received, turned in, or researched online. Do you know how early the library closes? Too early to rely on it as a source of internet access, especially when patrons are limited to two hours a day. I can't take them to coffee shops every day, and even if there were a network left unsecured by a neighbor I won't model unethical behavior by encouraging my children to use it.
5) I'm not poor because I'm lazy or stupid or uneducated
This is the assumption that makes me the angriest. "Why don't you get a better job?" "Why don't you get a second job?" "Educate yourself for a better career!"
I have a better idea — why don't you start valuing my time as highly as you value yours?
The most underpaid workers are often the ones you'd miss if they weren't there. Restaurant cooks and servers, clerks in stores, the people who clean your house or mow your lawn or take care of your kids or of you when you're old or sick. We do the things you can't do, or won't do, because you're doing other things. I'm not saying you should stop doing those other things. Those things you're doing are good things, possibly great things, hopefully wonderful things!
I understand that there are some skills that are rarer or more necessary or valuable than others. But not only is my time and labor not as highly valued as yours, it's legal to deliberately keep me in poverty. And yes, every time an employer hires anyone at less than a living wage, or at part-time hours, it is a deliberate choice. Employers make it because they can, because they can get away with it. Because it's legal to pay a wage that I can't live on even working 40 hours a week. It's legal to use scheduling software to justify cutting hours to 20 a week. To pay certain employees half of the minimum wage and expect patrons to make up for it with tips.
It's legal to jigger schedules so that employees must make last-minute arrangements for child care or transportation. It's legal to force employees to either cancel plans or lose their jobs. Once upon a time, it was possible to work a day job and a night job. But when you never know when you're going to work for even one job, it's virtually impossible to hold down two unless you have some sort of skill you can freelance. Add the realities of child care, transportation, and communication into the mix, and most low-income workers can forget it.
That's what makes me angry. Politicians want to look good to the people who give them lots of money, so they rail against helping people who don't have money to spend. They ignore and marginalize what people like me actually accomplish. I pay taxes — sales tax, property tax, gas tax. I offer a valuable service with the skills I have learned. But that's glossed over in favor of the myth of "steak and lobster — at taxpayer expense!" while actively enabling a system that keeps me poor. The woman who mutters under her breath about how I'm "taking advantage" fails to realize that the roads she drives on, the school her children attend, and the park they play in are all funded by taxpayers as well — including me.
That's why I collect assistance without shame. And I'll continue to do so whenever I need to, until an actual living wage is legislated and applied across the board.
Christine Gilbert lives with her children in southwest Missouri. This is her first published article.