I walked out of the grocery store, fighting tears. It wouldn’t have been the first time I left the store crying, nor would it have been the last.
It was food stamp day, a day I was blissfully ignorant of four years ago. Grocery stores, especially the discount one in our area, are unusually busy the day food stamp recipients receive their monthly benefits. I know this now because until a month ago, we were food stamp recipients. We also qualify for supplemental nutrition through the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program.
I’ll pause here in case you want to get off the train before we really start rolling. See, last time I wrote about being on food stamps (the government calls it SNAP; I’ll use that term later), I lost at least one Facebook friend (who maybe wasn’t really a friend at all?) and was served a heaping dish of criticism for the choices our family has made.
So, here’s your chance to leave this conversation before it ever starts. If the thought of people on food stamps makes your blood pressure double, if “welfare” is a four-letter word to you, well, maybe this post isn’t for you.
Or maybe it is.
Back to the grocery store. I was picking up a few things we needed. I might have even used a WIC check for milk, juice and bread. I think I bought bananas. In the last month, we’ve had to tighten our budget greatly. My husband is looking for full-time work. We have credit card debt we’re desperately trying to get rid of. God is providing enough work to pay our bills. And we are not lacking for anything, not even food.
We are blessed.
I noticed the full grocery carts. The young families. The multi-generational families. And, yes, I made assumptions about who was on food stamps. I stole a couple of glances into carts — because isn’t that what we do? — and wanted to judge their purchases, even though I have felt the weight of judgment like a 50-lb bag of sugar on the bottom of my shopping cart. I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t judge. And I don’t say that to make you think I’m above judging others because I’m not. I jump to conclusions faster than a startled grasshopper.
I couldn’t judge because I could see. For just a moment I saw struggling families trying to make ends meet. People making decisions the best they know how. Moms pushing heaping carts of the entire month’s groceries for the love of their kids.
And I heard. I heard in my head the hurtful words I’ve seen posted on Facebook: how people on welfare are lazy or want to make a career out of it. Words I’ve heard Christian brothers and sisters say: that we make it easy for single moms because we give them food stamps, that a mother who lets her child outside without a coat in winter must be a food stamp (and bad?) mother. Words left unspoken but are implied.
Hear me now: There is nothing easy about being poor. Or being on food stamps. Or being on WIC. Yes, the government programs ease one burden. But they don’t lift it completely. Our family could buy food, but we still had to pay the heating oil company to heat our house in winter. We were “privileged” enough to go into debt to do it. Others don’t have the luxury of making such choices. We still had to buy diapers for our kids. And toiletries, lest we be judged for the smell and dirt around us.
The worst part, though, is the shame. Few people in our church know we were on food stamps because I didn’t want to them to know. I didn’t want their pity or their judgment. So, I stewed silently when I heard hurtful things. I avoided people we know in the grocery store because I didn’t want them to see me using WIC checks. I only talked about it with the friends I knew would understand.
I endured questions from well-meaning grocery store employees who asked my kids, “Do you have a daddy?” and clerks who repeatedly told me the date to write on my WIC checks because I’m obviously stupid (my words, not theirs).
I never wanted to walk this road, but it’s the road we chose. We didn’t go into it thinking about how much we could take or how we could be a burden on the government. We did it for our kids. The best thing for our family while my husband was in seminary was for me to stay home, for him to go to school and work part time, and for us to receive government assistance. Even now, I feel the need to defend our decision. Because yes, I could have worked. The kids could have gone to day care. We could have done what so many families do and do whatever it takes.
Honestly, I’m not sure we’d have made it through intact. As it is, we barely made it out of seminary alive and whole.
Here are some things for all of us to think about:
- According to the government Web site, SNAP is “the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.” The site also states that nearly half of the participants are children and more than 40 percent of recipients live in households where there is some income. Therefore, not all people on food stamps are unemployed. They might be underemployed. They might be graduate students in medical school, future college professors earning a Ph.D. Or they might be a scared single mom who made a mistake and now has a baby to take care of. It doesn’t really matter to me why someone is on food stamps, only that they are. And they might need help in other ways.
- Yes, we have all encountered or heard stories of people paying for food with food stamps while paying with cash for cigarettes or alcohol, or having an iPhone or a nice car. (Fact: You can lease a car of any kind and it doesn’t count toward your “income” or “assets” when applying for food stamps. If you, however, own a van that is worth more than $5,000, you could be ineligible to receive food stamps because you have too much money in “assets.”) This article gives some perspective. Not everyone grew up in a house where they learned to make good decisions about finances. Some people are trapped in a cycle of poverty not of their own making.
- The church — and some who are politically conservative — is sending mixed messages about the poor. We won’t provide birth control for women, but if they happen to get pregnant, even out of wedlock, we will implore them to have the baby and not abort it. And if they decide to keep the baby and make a go of it as a single mom, we don’t want them to live on welfare. Here’s my frustration: If the church won’t help poor people, why shouldn’t the government do it?
- And, finally, who among us is truly deserving? People say that others don’t deserve to have children, don’t deserve to have government help, don’t deserve to live. Yet somehow we forget that we didn’t do anything to deserve being born in America. And if we are Caucasian, we didn’t deserve to have the government give our ancestors a plot of land on the frontier to build a farm and a family on. Even if we have earned every penny we’ve ever made, it is still a gift from God. Children who eat dirt cakes in Haiti are no less worthy of life than a fortune 500 CEO. People have told our family that we are the exception and that the food stamp program was created for people like us, as if that somehow makes it okay to tell someone else their child deserves to starve. That breaks my heart.
You know that famous Proverbs 31 woman? Well, right before the description of her is this charge:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
The poor often have no voice. And maybe that’s because we never ask them to speak. We let our assumptions and their behavior speak for them.
I have become passionately defensive of the poor these last few years, and I hate to even try to identify with the poor because my poverty is nothing compared to those who have lived with it generation after generation — whether in this country or another. Please do not mistake my tone for angry or judgmental. And if you defriend me on Facebook because of this, I’ll live.
My point was just to give you another lens to look through.