Frankly, I’ve avoided reading and hearing much about recent cuts to SNAP (aka food stamps) because the discourse around that issue is just shitty and because it feels personal to me.
Regular readers here know that my husband and I were both unemployed for about a year. We were poor–if you don’t have considerable savings and you can’t find a job, you get that way pretty fast!–and dependent on government assistance for healthcare and food.
Eric wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits because his unemployment (like so many people’s during the past five years) started right out of his degree program. I was lucky enough to have worked for a year at a decent-paying job right before this financial rough patch. So, my unemployment benefits nearly paid our rent, SNAP and WIC paid for our entire family’s food (except the dog and bird, who ate from our small savings), the fine state of Minnesota provided free healthcare for our entire family, and we watched our check account approach zero as we paid our utility bills and bought gas for our car. Meanwhile, we kept looking for work.
Eric finally found a job right before I ran out of unemployment benefits–which is to say, right before we ran out of rent money, a problem that would have chased us out of town (if we need to move in with family to keep our children safe and warm at night, that means leaving the state) and away from all the networking and volunteering and applications that were supposed to get us paid work again. And away from our home, our privacy, our older child’s already-tenuous sense of security and stability.
We didn’t fall down that hole because the benefits were available, because we worked hard and had good luck, because Eric got a job with a good salary and benefits at the eleventh hour, because I found work too shortly after that. Now we’re fine. And–not incidentally–we are more than repaying the benefits we drew through our income taxes. You know–taxes on the income we couldn’t have found without SNAP and the other assistance programs that kept us job-seeking and safe and full.
I am so grateful for the healthy, familiar food we ate while we were poor.
I am so grateful that Eric and I happen to be overeducated people with all the confidence and privilege that comes from our backgrounds. We were financially poor, but we had credentials and communication habits and other cultural signals to use as shields. We protected our children with them, with our fancy words and upper-middle-class clothes and highly-developed literacy and progressive values and (relative) comfort navigating bureaucracies. We had tons of kitchen equipment and knowledge that allowed us to make wonderful food from stuff like dried beans and the eight million gallons of milk WIC somewhat mysteriously provides, and we had time to do it because we were unemployed rather than working poor. When we got jobs, they were the kind that let you rise out of poverty and stop qualifying for all those program we needed so badly for a while. Although it did not feel particularly easy, I know we had it easy, compared to people facing not temporary poverty but generational poverty, people who are not “financially poor” but just plain poor.
And I guess we were not the “deserving poor,” either. You know, the ones who “deserve” to receive food assistance? I had the gall to have a baby when I knew I’d be unemployed soon! (I can assure you that it was not for the awesome cash benefits, though.) Not only that, but we had nice things! I was often seen eating off actual silver utensils–while poor! I had clothes that let me pass as upper-middle-class, and I just kept on wearing them! I mean, for shame, right? Get a plastic spork, lady, and a dress made from a flour sack or something! We didn’t drain our checking account of every penny before drawing SNAP and WIC assistance. We didn’t even have the decency to feel guilty and embarrassed when buying food (some of it organic!) with the complicated series of vouchers and (blessedly easy-to-use) EBT card that came with us to the co-op and farmers’ market each week.
I clearly have a hard time avoiding sarcasm and bitterness when it comes to this issue.
But here’s what I’m really saying: people are unemployed because we can’t find decent work … or any work … not because we love receiving food stamps so much. People are poor because of crappy economic conditions and crappy luck and centuries of inequalities and a society that doesn’t distribute its resources appropriately, not because we love receiving food stamps so much.
We were able to stay in the city where we’d invested many many job-seeking hours until that investment paid off in the form of jobs and financial independence because SNAP and other benefits sustained us in the meantime. That seems like a good thing to me.