The day I bought steak with my food stamps

I cried every night, the week before I finally applied for food stamps. I was so ashamed. Food stamps are for losers, people who make stupid, irresponsible choices,people who want to live a life of luxury while other people work hard to pick up the slack. This I knew.

We were homeschooling, because the schools in our town were wretched. We were in that town because we were renting a house from my brother-in-law, because we had been evicted from our previous apartment, because the landlord had sold the duplex, and nobody else would rent to us because they thought we had too many kids for the size of apartment we could afford.

So there we were, in a dead end town. But we were getting by. I budgeted like a maniac, playing Scrooge with the precious hoard of toilet paper, detergent, and apples we could afford. I once bought a used linen toddler dress for four dollars and blushed the whole way home, nauseated with the extravagance of my purchase. It wasn’t a great way to live, but as long as my husband could get enough overtime hours and WIC kept us in cheese and Kix, and as long as the kids could stomach a rotation of pasta, hot dogs, bananas, and tuna noodle casserole, we were okay.

Then my husband’s employer cut the overtime hours, but still required everyone to hand in the same amount of work. No, it’s not exactly legal, but there weren’t any other jobs to be had that year. His schedule still varied wildly and unpredictably from day to day, and we couldn’t find any jobs that would make up the lost overtime income and allow him to show up at either 8 a.m. or 11:45 p.m., depending on what else he was doing.

Now the kids got hot dogs for supper, and the adults got a hot dog bun with ketchup. We figure and figured and figured, and discovered that, no matter how hard we squeezed, we were always going to be about forty dollars short of being able to eat and pay our basic bills. Just forty dollars — something that, five years ago, when the economy was better, I would have spent on odds and ends at Target without thinking twice. But it was forty dollars that we didn’t have now, at all.

So off to the welfare office I went. And they granted us $800 a month for our family of seven. I couldn’t believe it. So much money! Boy oh boy, I thought. They were right about food stamps: you can live like a king on this stuff. No wonder people just sit back and let the free checks come in! I knew we weren’t like that, though, and I decided we’d just use what we needed, and let the rest sit there, so at least we won’t be part of the problem. I’d put money in the bank as a down payment on an apartment in a better city, and I’d only use my benefits to make up the slack that I had found in our budget, and no more. We’re no freeloaders.

And we followed this plan for many months. I salted away savings, and I strolled past the meat freezer in the supermarket, lusting after the trays of meat, scorning the shameless slobs who stopped and filled up their carts on the taxpayer’s dime. Freeloaders. Scum. Oh lord, look at that steak. Stop looking. Now go get some spaghetti.

You know what? I was still ashamed of myself for being on food stamps, even though at this point I was working, too, tutoring and then delivering Meals on Wheels while still homeschooling, while my husband worked what amounted to swing shifts at his job. I was obsessively drawn to arguments about food stamps online, and, feeling extraordinarily defensive, belligerently or pathetically pled my case to strangers over and over again. It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t mean it to be this way. We’re really trying. We’re not worthless, truly not!

And they hated us anyway. Oh, man. They told us everything I had been saying to myself: freeloaders. Not willing to work. What’s wrong with America today. Culture of dependency. And all the while, we went around the house with winter jackets and three pairs of socks on, because we couldn’t afford to turn the heat above 60 degrees when it was below zero out. My kids never got a new toy, never got new clothes. They learned never to ask for a popsicle or a box of crayons. We cobbled together a bizarre school curriculum out of whatever books were 25 cents at the thrift store. My husband’s glasses were taped together at the nose, we had no auto or health insurance, and I chose my driving routes according to how many hills I could coast down, to save gas. We prioritized bills according to how threatening they were.

And we were thoroughly, thoroughly stuck in a neighborhood where everyone was on parole for beating, cheating, or molesting someone else on the street. They set the actual street on fire once. I remember staring at the green catfish we kept in a tank, a leftover from our old life when we could consider buying luxuries like pets. He would swim around and around, and I would have these cartoonish, drooling fantasies about how delicious he would be, fried up in a pan with a little lemon juice. I’ve told stories about these things as if they were funny, but they were not funny.  My kids were not safe in their own yard. I would let them play in the rain puddles only after checking for used condoms.

I couldn’t stay away from comment boxes about food stamps. And every single one told us that we were shit, because we needed help buying food.

So I went out and bought a freaking steak. And pop tarts, and ice cream, and chips, and asparagus, and mangoes, and all the things that we had trained ourselves to stop even looking at. And with the cash I saved from using food stamps, I bought a giant carton of cheap beer.

Everything else in our material lives was completely awful. There was no hint of luxury anywhere, no wiggle room, nothing simple or easy. Everything was dirty and sour, and everything was a struggle. Everything we tried to accomplish was impossible because six other impossible things had to be fixed first. The one and only expansive thing was the food budget. So I bought a freaking steak, and it was so juicy and good.

Not everyone has a story like ours. But not everyone has our advantages, either: the advantage of knowing that life isn’t supposed to be like this, that fresh fruits and veggies are important, that debt isn’t normal, that work is normal, that reading books is important, that family can be depended on, that kids need structure and order, that marriage and monogamy are normal.

Not everyone knows how to maintain a car. How to show up on time.  How to file taxes, make photocopies, save paystubs, request forms, and fill out the reams and reams of paperwork necessary to keep the welfare office from cancelling your benefits — or, as happened to us one month, to keep from despairing when the welfare office makes a mistake and gives you too many benefits, and then, when they discover the mistake, it turns out you owe *them* money, which you pay off with the money you’ve been saving in the bank until you run out of money, which means you have to go back on food stamps because you can’t buy food.

It may very well be that the ratty, vulgar, freeloaders you see with their L-shaped leatherette couches, their flat screen TVs, their tattoos and yeah, their food stamp steaks are in the same position. They may be stuck. They may have been stuck for generations, and they may not even have anyone tell them that there is supposed to be more to life than getting as many benefits as you can. They may have been shrieked and sworn at, neglected and molested since they were babies. They may have lead poisoning and FAS. The may have been numbed and dimmed by being told from day one that they’re retards, so go watch cartoons and drink your orange soda, retard, and leave mommy’s boyfriend the fuck alone. They may never have seen anyone cook in an oven. They may spend their lives on waiting lists for another dank, foul, dim, narrow subsidized apartment with a yard of dirt and broken bottles. And all of this may be the only thing they can imagine, because everyone else they have ever known lives exactly the same way.

They may have tried to get ahead by getting a second or third, minimum wage job working overnight at a gas station, or sweeping floors at the tampon factory, and discovered that their food stamps are immediately cut by exactly the amount they bring home.  They may hear that they’re not going to get any more benefits until they sell their cars (because that’s a great way to find a steady job) or get rid of their phones (because teachers, employers, and the welfare office itself really appreciate not having any way to get in touch).

They may hear that they should somehow miraculously vault over a lifetime of the degradations of generational poverty and just . . . be better. Be self-sufficient. Be a completely different kind of person out of sheer will power. That if they don’t do this, they are pathetic, and have no one but themselves to blame. Look how they live! Such luxury, on the taxpayer’s dime!

And they may get their monthly benefits and think, “Screw it, I’m gonna get something I want for a change.” They may buy themselves a freaking steak. And they may not care if you think they deserve it or not.

***

UPDATE: Several people have expressed concern about our financial state. I appreciate this very much, and would like to reassure everyone that this essay describes what we went through several years ago. Thanks be to God, we have been off WIC and food stamps for several years. I wrote this essay mainly to get  it off my chest, and my husband encouraged me to publish it — so I did so assuming it would only reach my normal audience, who are already familiar with our family. If I had known this essay would get as much attention as it has, I would have made it more clear that we are doing (more or less) fine now, thanks!

Image by Michael Berch via Flickr (Creative Commons)

16 thoughts on “The day I bought steak with my food stamps”

  1. Thank you for writing this! I can relate and I appreciate people who take time to look beyond outward appearances to the heart of the matter. We need more compassion and understanding in this world, not self-righteous people looking down their noses at people with real struggles. We need more people saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

  2. A great post that really resonated with me. I grew up extremely poor, homeless at times, on Food Stamps most of the time. I remember the terrible shame that I felt going to the store as a teenager to buy food with the food stamps. My mother is a college educated woman, we still struggled. She couldn’t get a job she was ‘qualified’ for and yet many jobs told her she was ‘over qualified’. Any time she would get a decent job, and report the income, they dropped our benefits and raised our project-rent so fast that it was impossible to EVER get ahead. The system is so flawed, and set up that it’s very hard to get out from under it. And society punishes poor people. It punishes disabled people. It punished people of color (we are white). My mom got re-married to get out of it. That’s the only way the majority of single women ever escaped the hole we were in.

    Also, a big middle finger to these hateful conservatives coming in here to try and sully your post with their delusional lies. Thanks for sharing your story and how you changed your viewpoint.

    1. I understand your frustration with people who seem to have hearts of stone. However, could we PLEASE skip the “middle finger”? How about being understanding and compassionate to ALL people, no matter what flaws they apparently have. We don’t know why people are the way they are… there are reasons we may not see nor understand. The critical, sometimes hateful, judgement goes both ways. Polarization is not the answer. We need more Love, compassion and understanding and less middle fingers. Speaking the truth (as we see it), with Love, will go much further to persuade people to reconsider their views. If we just bash each other, we won’t get anywhere good.

  3. I am glad you used “the system” correctly to better your family’s situation. Unfortunately many use their assistance to purchase food for others only to trade that food for cash so they can purchase things that food stamps do not and should not cover/allow to be purchased like alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs.

      1. Excellent question, Simcha! People like to throw around undocumented “statistics”, which they conveniently use to support their argument. People need to realize that their limited perceptions are not always 100% accurate. Things are not always as they appear!

    1. I’ve been so poor I lived in my car for a year. This myth that poor people sell their benefits for drugs, cigarettes and alcohol is just that, A MYTH. Pull your head out of your Fox news and meet some actual disadvantaged families.

  4. Thank you so much for opening up and sharing with us. I think it would be relevant to link up your post on being privileged to say no to NFP. That essay, this essay, and what you have said about the realities of living in poverty really stayed with me. Kudos for another job well done, Ms. Fisher.

  5. I would be very interested in reading the next chapter about how your family transitioned towards sustainable self sufficiency so that I can be most helpful to the families I meet at the Sidewalk.

  6. I commented before on a similar post you wrote a while back. Anyway, thanks for writing this and being vocal about your family’s (former) financial situation. I got a little choked up when I came to the part about you buying that damn steak, anyway. I know that feeling exactly – when you decide that it’s okay to have some small pleasure, even though you’re broke and it’s on someone else’s dime. I had to learn that, too. My wife is pregnant with our fourth child. God willing this will be our fourth child born under the Medicaid umbrella. We were on WIC for a long time earlier in our marriage. We always felt ashamed about it and it’s definitely easier to not have to rely on anyone else to buy food. So, that’s stressful. I think it’s still hard on my wife, having to be on Medicaid, but I also think it really has opened our eyes to all of the different types of situations people end up in, whether through their own poor decisions or the poor decisions of others that have so strongly influenced them their whole lives. I was a social worker for a while (government work – talk about good benefits) and saw all types of people and the hardships they faced. It’s tempting to say, like so many, that they just need to straighten out their lives and work hard, then maybe things will be better. The truth is, and this is what I really really appreciate about what you said, that it’s not that easy. A lot of people don’t have the skills we take for granted; they’re not well adjusted socially and emotionally and they’ve been treated like garbage by most of the world, so there’s no room for an optimistic outlook in their psyche. If I ever got what you might call “jealous” of people who received thousands of dollar a month in government entitlements, my wise dad would remind me that, really, no one wants to live like that and that I certainly didn’t want to live like that. Even now, I wouldn’t be surprised if people looked at us and thought that we really shouldn’t be having more kids when we can’t afford to pay for insurance or when I’m an independent contractor and don’t have a job that offers those benefits. BUT then I look at my kids and I think, no…no…no that’s not right. These kids are my family’s and our society’s only hope for making the world a better place, for showing the world the love of God. I remember that I once had a mother on my case load who had 8 kids by 7 different dads. Other than the fact that this created a ton more work for me and I hated that, I thought about how easy it would have been for her to abort them. She probably had all kinds of voices talking at her, telling her that abortion would be better. And yet, here she was with all those kids and a crazy, complicated situation. Her kids were alive. She probably wasn’t a great mom and those dads probably weren’t great either, but all those kids have a chance to do something great. Perfect solutions just don’t exist when it comes to the messes of life. We just need to be okay with that. We’re all doing our best.

      1. David M Hoffman… are you a prophet? How could anyone possibly know what those children will do in the distant future? They could become good, responsible adults, leading productive (even amazing) lives. Being born into poverty doesn’t make a child worthless! How dare you ignorantly declare these children to be future failures and of no value to society. SMH!

  7. I’m glad you swear. It makes your voice and personality come through. It also makes what you’re saying more accessible to a larger audience. So yeah. That sounds like a really shitty year.

  8. I love your writing..but I don’t get why you degrade your writing with swear words. Your words are powerful, but when you put cuss words in..it brings it right down to everyone else. You’re worth more than that Simcha.

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