The way I see it

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.

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15 thoughts on “The way I see it

  1. Lisa, I agree with your thoughts, but I must be the devil’s advocate for a minute as one who worked in a grocery store and saw the abuse of the system and generation after generation of people who were lazy and would not work. and the children had no other life skills because the church doesn’t step up and teach them “you can break the cycle” of poverty. They need to be taught to make those better choices of work and schooling. but like you said if the church doesn’t do it who will. I saw lots of abuses single mothers who would have more children just to get more aid from the government and those who would abuse the cash benefit to buy cigerettes or alchol or even with the food stamps buying unhealthy items. We need to be in the business as Christians to help the poor learn good life skills, budgeting, and good healthy food choices. I do understand what it is like to be on food stamps and welfare, was on it for most of my childhood, and the shame that comes with it. I guess what I am saying is we need balance not too judgemental and helpful and compassionate to those around us yet at the same time call the fraud what it is as well. I pray I am not as judgemental as I used to be. It is there for those who need help for a certain time not a lifetime

      • Lisa,
        I hope I didn’t come off being judgemental to you in my comments. We all make choices based on what we feel is best for our families. I too chose to stay home with my children and we know what it is to skrimp and save wherever we can. and Randy working two jobs and that meant not much time for family but we have survived and you will too and God will provide a job for Phil and more home work for you as well. He is by the way the great provider.

  2. We used WIC when our kids were little.. I was a stay-at-home mom also, who had quit a perfectly good job to BE a stay-at-home mom because of the value of having a mom stay home with the kids when they are babies, infants, and toddlers and preschoolers… OUR KIDS WERE LITTLE AND BORN CLOSE TOGETHER SO IT WOULD HAVE COST US MORE TO PUT THEM IN DAYCARE EVEN IF I was working…so WIC helped a lot, the Doctors around here encourage people to use WIC but even so WIC is a small part of what it costs to raise kids etc, … We were not on Food Stamps though but even so, it is kind of embarassing to go to the store and use WIC even though it is helpful… so I understand what you are going thru. …you know you are a college graduate and had a perfectly good job but you chose to stay home for the sake of your kids, so you know you are doing the right thing, but you don’t like the idea of feeling “Judged” by other people because you are using WIC or food stamps….I was a college graduate too and made good money too before i quit working to raise kids, so I understand how you feel… later on, I was able to go back to work part-time..etc…anyway, it all balances out in the end…
    Congratulations to your husband for graduating and we hope and pray that he will find something soon.. it is all in the timing. if nothing comes up right now, then something will come up later.
    you can be sure that he will find something soon and it will work out. … When you don’t see anything happening, you can be assured that God is working behind the scenes to make something happen….you just can’t see it yet…Look at GREG ….we didn’t know if he would get any job offers after he graduated Northern , it was slow for awhile, but he got 3! he picked the best one, and now he is going to teach ART at Naperville Central High School… It’s great because he prefers to teach art at the high school level, and his girlfriend Emily attends College in Naperville, and he has also gotten a very nice place to live there, at a cheap rate that inludes utilities and a nice roommate…
    So all I can say is, you have to be careful for awhile with the money,but in the end, something good will come of this. and you won’t have to worry anymore.. ! Mary

    • Thanks for your story, Mary! It’s good to know there are others who made the decision to stay home even if it meant less income in the family. Thanks for the prayers! And yay for Greg!

  3. First, you are brave, Lisa. I’d love to say if I were in your shoes I’d be able to write a similar post, but I think I’d cower in shame. Especially after the facebook incident—my goodness people can be such jerks!

    I think you hit on a couple of excellent points here!

    1. The church, as a whole, does an abysmal job of taking care of the poor, widows and orphans. We do. Most of us throw money at a cause or two once in awhile, but we don’t strive to change or better our own communities in any sort of meaningful, lasting way. To fix the systemic problem of poverty. We avoid eye contact with the bedraggled homeless man on the street, but do nothing to help him improve his life, so that he’s not there the next time we walk by. We gasp in horror that a homosexual couple wants to adopt a fatherless black baby with a 16 year old birth mother from the projects, but how many of us are willing to give that child a home?

    God calls Christians to do this—to live in community with one another, to love one another and to lend aid where it’s needed, and we’ve failed. We live in our own little comfortable boxes. God’s saved me, and provides for me—–aren’t I so blessed?! So—the government has to step in, and provide, and yes, it’s a broken system. Yes, the system is abused, but not by all.

    2. All we own, all we have is God’s. We are stewards of what he gives us. So, yes, you get money from the government that you haven’t “earned”. Well, truly, the money that anyone else gets from their salaries isn’t truly theirs any more than that WIC money is. When we approach what we have as being something that we are stewards over, only—–it changes your perspective doesn’t it? The person who buys his own cigarettes with his salary are just as culpable as the person who buys them on welfare, because he isn’t using what God gave him, put him as steward over, wisely (many would say).

    • Oh, thanks, Julia! I don’t feel brave a lot of the time! Using food stamps in our hometown would have been even worse because you walk into a grocery store and know everybody, so at least out here, I’m virtually anonymous! Thanks for your comment!

  4. I love you.
    I love that you wrote this.
    We are taught that you get what you work for and that is completely untrue. How many men and women have worked their entire lives and still live from paycheck to paycheck? How many people do we praise and give our money who do little other than show up in the tabloids? We’re taught that going to school will be a reward. For many of us it’s not. We are the working poor. I have tens of thousands of dollars in debt and a B.A. in Psychology and the jobs working in the field that I could get pay $9.10/hr…maybe $11/hr, a supervisors position at where I used to work was salaried at $25,000. I made less in a year than the loan I took out my Senior year of college. I now work outside the field and make in a year what that loan was. We are told a lie by those who have that we can be just like them with hard work and we believe it. We then feed their pockets then end up richer and we end up in the same place we started and wonder how that happened. I’ll never forget when President Bush told the world that the answer for the men and women who were laid off was going back to school and all I could think was ‘how.’ How could a 40something year old man with a daughter or son hoping to go to college, a mortgage, utilities, cars and more be suddenly without a job and go to school? We judge what we don’t care to understand. We say that so many people ‘take advantage’ of the system but how? Now, yes, non taxable income is not counted into the plan so drug dealers and the like can manipulate the system but how is having more kids a way to get more money? Isn’t it true that kids cost money and need to eat so how would you be getting more money wouldn’t you just be getting money in order to fill the amount of bellies that need to be filled? How completely opposite is our experience than that that we read about in Acts? Why are we so opposed to the idea of the early church? Now, I’m not saying let’s be a socialist society I’m just saying at the bottom of your heart do people really believe that Jesus would say ‘look at those scumbag single mothers having more children to take advantage of the system’ or ‘those people don’t deserve to have food because of the circumstances in their lives’?
    It breaks my heart how readily the Christian community judges and hates.

  5. Hi Lisa,
    I’m glad to hear your story of coming through and understanding hard times. However, your defense of foodstamps boggles me. I grew up with a single mom, stood in the welfare lines and we lived on food stamps. A sibling of my is the classic case of foodstamp mom, babies with different dads from prison, abusive, etc. I know everyone has their own reasons for welfare, and it does sound like your an exception to the many who abuse the system.

    But where does personal responsibility come into the picture?

    Food stamps are meant to keep people from starving—not to make life a little more easier because even though I’m educated and can get a job, I just don’t feel like that’s the right choice for my family.
    To each his own, really. But the way you see it seems to lack there being a problem. People are the problem.

    People are on foodstamps because they weren’t taught better? People are on foodstamps because the church is screwed-up? Not really. People are on foodstamps because they make poor choices, chronic poor choices, not good choices. Yes, we all make poor choices throughout life, all of us, but we don’t all get a hand-out paid by others who are struggling to get by without welfare.

    Just because you feel something for someone doesn’t mean that the way you interpret the condition is accurate. I’m glad you have grace and patience and understanding through your experience–you are right in us needing more of that–but those virtues are not enough to solve the large, very real problem of welfare.

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