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Looking back, I don’t think I had ever had such an expensive grocery cart.
I was at Whole Foods, and I’d gotten nothing but the best of the best: pre-marinated salmon filets, fancy artisan cheeses, fresh seasoned greens, fig-and-olive crackers, gourmet salted chocolate caramels, organic sparkling juices.
The cashier asked, “Credit or debit?”
I held up a card with an American flag and said, “Food stamps.”
I only had a moment to process the expression on her face—two parts shock and one part fury— before I realized what this looked like. I looked like a welfare queen sitting on a high horse and buying groceries that hard-working people don’t get to have. I looked like the person Republicans imagine when they’re trying to think of someone to be angry at. Add to it that I’m young, I “look gay,” and was wearing a pro-Obama tee shirt. I looked like the poster girl for “Entitled Millennials.”
But it wasn’t what it looked like—it really wasn’t.
I had just gotten over a serious illness that had included a 10-day hospital stay and nearly a month of being unable to eat. When I was at my sickest, my partner had ended up staying with her parents while my kids stayed with my sister. I lost a ton of weight in the hospital due to illness and the bland hospital food that was covered as part of my medical care.
The monthly allowance given to food stamp recipients—which, by the way, isn’t as much as most people assume—is the same regardless of whether you’re home or not and regardless of whether or not you’re too sick to eat. So, when I was released from the hospital, I had a single assignment from my doctor, “Do whatever you can to gain weight,” and a much larger budget than usual to make that happen.
If you’d barely eaten for a month, your doctor told you to pack on some pounds, and you had a backlog in your grocery allowance because of that, what would you do? I highly doubt that any person would be buying ramen noodles.
I got the best I could—because, for once, I could.
Of course it looked terrible. Unforgivable, even. But after a serious illness and the only luxury in my life being extra food stamps, I was going to have a nice meal and I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it.
I didn’t expect my life to go the way it had when I reached that point, yet there I was, surviving on food stamps and handouts. The even more disappointing thing was that it wasn’t the first time: I have been a “welfare mom” twice in just 28 years. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s also something I refuse to be ashamed of.
The first time I had to depend on government assistance, it was when my oldest child was a baby. I didn’t plan on becoming a mom when I got pregnant with her at 20 years old, while I was trying to scratch out a living on a minimum wage of just $5.95 an hour, but I was determined to make the best of a very bad situation for my sake as well as my daughter’s.
I worked 60 hours a week on my feet until the day I gave birth to her, but even overtime was barely enough to cover the cost of the car, insurance, and gas I needed to get to work and back. Covering the cost of the essentials of raising a child was another challenge altogether.
When I had tried to apply for WIC, I was given an option of several different mid-morning weekday appointments and was told that I would need to plan on being present for about three hours every three months. I had no way to do that while also holding down an overtime job, so that was the one form of “welfare” that I was never able to get.
I was working hard, but with absolutely no money to care for myself and my baby, I had no option but to depend on government assistance to survive.
People have an idea of what poverty looks like in America, but few people in the middle class have actually seen just how bad it can get. At one point, when I was nine months pregnant, I was so completely dirt-poor that I had to steal toilet paper from public bathrooms. When I ran out of shampoo, I had to wash my hair with bar soap from the dollar store.
I was hugely relieved when I came up with four “extra” dollars to buy a pair of used maternity pants from Goodwill. There were several times that I broke down at the gas pump during the worst days of the Recession, knowing that I was going to have to choose between breakfast and transportation.
People say I’m “entitled” because I accepted a little help from the government to pay for my groceries. I say I was accepting what I needed in order to survive the darkest and scariest days of my life.
When my partner and I planned our second child, I thought that my days of “welfare” were behind me. I didn’t think I would ever again face the humiliation of sitting in a food stamp office or filling out a form for help paying my power bill.
My partner and I were both gainfully employed and doing pretty well for ourselves. We weren’t wealthy, but we’d worked our way into the middle class and planned out what our life was going to be like. That plan didn’t include welfare, but fate will do some strange and horrible things to you.
My pregnancy with my youngest child, my son, was complicated and difficult. Everywhere I turned, another complication or health problem was springing up, and although my son was healthy, my body was failing me catastrophically in a million ways at once. I was shuffling in and out of doctors’ offices trying to keep my body duct-taped together long enough to bring my son into the world.
After he was born, I suffered even worse complications. I not only wasn’t able to work, but I also wasn’t able to take care of my older child, or my baby, or, at times, even myself. My partner—who herself wasn’t always doing so great—had to cut back her work hours to hold our family together. What got us through?
You guessed it. Welfare.
Eventually, the universe decided that my partner and I had been through enough, and we finally found our way back into comfort and security. When that happened, we immediately repaid our debts and donated as much as we possibly could to nonprofits and to people we knew who were in need.
And I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relieved than I did the day I went to the DHS office and turned in a notice asking them to close my welfare case. We survived because we got help when we needed it, and when we didn’t need it anymore, we moved on.
I live in an area with high rates of poverty. Almost every time I go to the grocery store, I see people paying with food stamps and getting groceries that some people would be angry with them for purchasing. Sometimes I see a neighbor who I know receives welfare using a new iPhone. Pretty routinely, I see people on government assistance smoking cigarettes or having a beer or two.
I also know that looks can be deceiving—that the beer might be the one “extra” thing someone bought with their teeny-tiny allowance from working overtime last week, that the iPhone might be a gift from a wealthier relative, and that the expensive groceries might be the result of someone being too sick to eat for days or even weeks.
But even if there are people out there who are gaming the system, there are hundreds of others who, like me, have found themselves in very dark places and have needed to depend on the government to pull them through.
I don’t judge these people, because I’ve been there and I know that welfare dependence isn’t a luxurious walk in the park. It’s a daily struggle to survive. And I’m glad to say that I survived it.