The first time I used food stamps, I cried. It was a predawn Saturday morning and I had purposely gone to the grocery store early to avoid pulling out the EBT card in the sight lines of people I worried would judge me. I felt like an imposter among self-paying customers.
I had $3.37 in my checking account — my entire net worth.
For almost an hour, I walked the aisles, half-shopping, half-stalling because I was terrified the brand new card would be declined or malfunction and I’d be left, stupefied and optionless, with a cartful of groceries I couldn’t otherwise afford. Items on my shopping list suddenly seemed luxurious, and I silently scolded myself for having the audacity to desire them. Poor people don’t get fresh pineapple chunks and frozen waffles, Janelle. It was early April, barely spring, but my back was damp with a summery sweat. I was electric with worry. The checkout line was mercifully empty when the cashier started moving merchandise across the scanner. She was quiet, even somber, but she gave me a small smile when she caught me monitoring the escalating subtotal: $13. $34. $76. I had $3.37 in my checking account — my entire net worth. If the EBT card wouldn’t work, I’d have to leave everything there and walk out of the store humiliated, back to a home where my 13-year-old daughter was depending on me. I needed it to work. It had to work. I squeezed my eyes closed and prayed from my core.
PleaseGodpleaseGodpleaseGodpleaseGodplease. The sweet sound of a printing receipt broke my meditation. No one in the grocery store had said a disparaging word or given me a sideways look — not the cashier who checked me out, not the lady who stood behind me in line just as I was paying — but shame forced tears up and over my water line as I wheeled the cart to my car. I loaded a dozen bags into the trunk and dropped myself into the driver’s seat, heavy and wholly exhausted before 7 a.m. The cold morning air turned my breaths into tiny, white puffs as I rested my forehead against the steering wheel and sobbed.
My life was supposed to have unfolded in a very different way. Government assistance had never been part of my reality growing up. I was raised by a single mother who worked long days and weekends at a factory job to keep us both comfortable, though we were just barely working class.
As the first person in my immediate family to go to college, it was my self-appointed duty to define success and achieve it, to make good money so I could shoulder financial burdens for my mama and my grandparents, to become someone worthy of the sacrifices they’d made to make me. It was my mother’s expressed hope that a bachelor’s degree would give me access to a lifestyle more privileged than the modest one she was living.
I built a career as a staff writer and editor that didn’t require me to work the same tiring hours in the same factory conditions that my mama did, and still does. I had all the tools I needed to live a life that — if it couldn’t be sleek and sexy like a Maserati — could at least be functional and dependable like a Jeep.
Government assistance had never been part of my reality growing up.
In 2012, when I was fired in an abrupt mass layoff from a job that was supposed to be reliable and steady, I decided to make a full-time pursuit of the freelance writing I’d been doing on the side for years. I knew I was taking a risk, and I was prepared for lean times. As a young single mom, I’d struggled financially through all of my adult years anyway. But I never considered that the trade-off for chasing a slow-materializing dream would be abject poverty. Nor did I think, if I ever needed to go back into the cubicled predictability of office work and biweekly paychecks, that finding another job would be so difficult. When freelancing got slow, I applied for 9-to-5 positions, and my resumes and cover letters evaporated, unacknowledged, into the human resource ether. My business was failing and I was apparently unemployable. I was at a standstill.There’s so much shame and loneliness around government assistance, deepened by an ingrained, disingenuous narrative that people who receive SNAP benefits — the formal term for food stamps — are unskilled, lazy, or unemployed. That’s not who I am. That’s not who more than half of the women and men who receive supplemental income to buy food are. Fifty-five percent of SNAP recipients are the working heads of families, which says a lot about the discrepancy between the cost of living and actual livable wages. A Pew Research study found that one in five Americans has received food stamps at some point. Many of us are one lost job, one health crisis, one financial disaster away from having no other choice.
I first received my EBT card in 2013. A woman at the human services office handed it to me after my application for Medicaid was approved. My daughter had been treated for depression and anxiety, then diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, between therapy, programs and medication, her wellness plan was too much for me to afford out-of-pocket. I wasn’t expecting SNAP as a companion benefit to the medical care and I initially declined when it was offered to me.
“Oh, no thank you,” I said, smiling politely at the white envelope containing the EBT card that the lady held out over her unkempt desk.
Her hand, and the white envelope, never wavered. “Take it just in case,” she said, gentle but unsmiling. “Everyone gets one. Might as well use it.”
Poverty is crazy-making.
My mother didn’t need assistance of any kind to care for me or herself. She worked hard, she provided, she took care of everything solo. Even with her repeated and sincere reassurances that I had no reason to compare myself or feel embarrassed, I hated that I couldn’t do the same for my little two-person family. I resented myself for being poor. My pride kept the EBT card, untouched, in the back pocket of my wallet for almost a year. Using it was an admission of failure. It meant giving up my financial autonomy, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Then, one day after school, my daughter opened the refrigerator and hollered to me down the hallway. “Mommy, when are you going grocery shopping?” We’ve played that scene out probably hundreds of times in our household. Usually, I’d yell something back like, “Tonight, honey!” or “First thing tomorrow, I promise!” All I could say in that moment was “I don’t know,” because I honestly didn’t.
An overwhelming panic wells up when you look in your refrigerator and there’s nothing there and you look in your cabinets and there’s nothing there and you look at the available balance in your bank account and there’s nothing there either. Not knowing where or when I’d get the money to pay a cell phone or electricity bill was frustrating, but negotiable. Not knowing when I would be able to buy food was horrifying, especially as a mother. That weekend, I had to pull the EBT card from its hiding place.
Tension and discouragement hang dense in the air as soon as you walk into the human resources office. You’re at the mercy of a system powered by a comedy of inefficiencies. Lines form early. Waits are long. Paperwork disappears. Your life is ultimately laid bare in document form, fanned out in front of the person whose job it is to decide whether you’re optimally managing the finances of your household and whether you and your people deserve help from the government. It’s a reductive and demeaning process. The negative energy there makes even tiny babies cry.
During a particularly low point in 2015, after my third trip to correct a problem I didn’t create on a renewal application that had been in process for months, a woman named Ms. Brown called from the local office. She was reviewing open files, she said, and wanted to run through all of the necessary items with me to pinpoint the possible holdup. My income continued to fluctuate — I made just $17,000 in my first year as a freelancer — and my $1,100 rent devoured nearly everything that came in. I still needed that card to survive.
“I don’t know,” I explained, scrambling to accurately summarize the details of my case, since she’d taken a rare initiative to contact me. “But I’ve been going back and forth with the office for a long time now and no one seems to be able to resolve it. I haven’t had benefits in two, going on three months.”
“Can you come in today?” she asked.
“I live right down the street and I work from home,” I told her. “I can be there in 10 minutes.”
I sat in front of her, slumped and helpless, exhausted from the back-and-forth and the general stress of being poor. Poverty is crazy-making. It changes you, snatches your good common sense, and consumes your thoughts. You wake up thinking about being poor, spend your days plotting how not to be poor, and go to bed worrying about the consequences of being poor. You’re high-strung, easily provoked, always looking for answers. You snap on your children. You snap on your boos and baes. You snap on God. There are moments — long, inward-facing moments — when no scripture, no motivational meme, no inspirational quote can quell the urgency of not having enough.
Angels are made in the form of tall, copper-colored women with bunned dreadlocks. When Ms. Brown returned to her desk, she slid a freshly printed form in front of me. At the top, she’d initialed it and handwritten “approved” in gorgeous script. She’d not only replenished my benefits, she’d given me the amounts I’d been missing for previous months. I didn’t even cover my face when I burst into overwhelmed, grateful tears. She paused the typing she was doing, gave me a soft, empathetic look, and stood to give me a hug.
Tender moments don’t typically happen in the human services office, but I think that exchange reminded her that the regimentation of her day-to-day job responsibilities deeply affect the lives of the people served by her office. I’d sat across from employees at their desks, feeling small and incapable, a burden to that particular staff member processing my case and society in general. She willfully saw me, the person, not the case number or the expenditure of resources. It made me hopeful that my circumstances were not a life sentence. As soon as I left, I went straight to the grocery store in the unhiding light of the day.
Last February, when New York state senator Patty Ritchie introduced legislation that would block families receiving food stamp benefits from purchasing “luxury items” like steak, lobster, and decorated cakes, several of my real-life friends and friends-of-friends who read about the story mounted their Facebook soapboxes to chime in and belittle poor people.
“It’s upsetting that they have two carts full of food, but I only have five items in my cart and I work every day,” said one.
“When it’s not your money, you tend to splurge,” commented another.
They griped about “they” and “them” without even knowing that I was one of the “they” and “them” they were criticizing. I countered, pointing out that civil liberties and protection from excessive intrusions of privacy were also guaranteed to poor people. But I was too embarrassed to volunteer myself as an actual representative. The stigma was just too intense and I was too intimidated to publicly out myself. Even in a conversation with black people who rage against the -isms centered around race, class, and gender, the welfare queen stereotype thrives.
I’m not benefitting from food stamps anymore. The biannual renewal process was too much hoop-jumping, too much show-and-proving, and I let it pass in 2016 without reapplication. I was doing slightly better financially, though certainly waiting for a miraculous payout in cash and good karma, and in December 2017, I marked five years of self-employment. Mine is not a sexy story of grit, perseverance, and overcoming, at least not yet. It’s a weekly gauntlet of challenges and I have to suit up every day to face them. Still, my daughter and I survived. We are actively surviving.
I feel like there should be some shareable, enlightened thought I unearthed that made that period of my life a valuable, teachable moment. There is none, or at least none immediately apparent. I could never completely stop myself from measuring my worth as a person by the position I was in and could very well be in again. I even kept it a secret from my daughter until I wrote this, the part of our story she didn’t know.
I am more empathetic and compassionate toward those in need now than I’ve ever been before. Last year, while I was waiting in line at yet another grocery store, a frazzled young woman stood at the register ahead of me, trying to rectify her WIC checks with an indifferent and unhelpful cashier. The process was a bit time-consuming and the guy behind me sighed in exasperation. I offered to let him ahead of me — he was clearly in more of a rush than I was — and his head dropped a bit, embarrassed by his own impatience. “Try to cut her a break,” I said. “She’s not doing this to inconvenience anybody. If she didn’t need the help, she probably wouldn’t be using it.”●
Janelle Harris is a writer and an editor.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article was accidentally published. This post has now been updated.