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)