Monday, May 20, 2013

Food (stamps), glorious food (stamps.)

Where is it, where is it...ah! Here it is! My soapbox. Just let me blow the dust off...there we go. And now we step up to the's all coming back to me now! Testing, 1, 2, 3...ooh, hot mic. Hot mic.

Today I want to talk to you about food stamps. Or for the young and hip, EBT cards, which I hear they're calling them these days.

Are we uncomfortable yet? Good. It's a touchy subject. And one that social media has forced me to open my mouth about.

In the couple of years I've been addicted to  using Facebook, I've seen several of my friends make comments about food stamps. Most of them have been jokes about the stereotypical food-stamp user at the store who uses them to buy junk food while talking on an iPhone with manicured nails. The gist is always that someone made a choice there to get an expensive phone and an unnecessary beauty treatment while hard-working taxpayers are buying this person's Cheetos.

I've let it go. I could comment, but that's a battle I know I can't win.

But recently someone posted that he was having hamburger for dinner while welfare moms were using their EBT cards to treat themselves to steak. And I felt something in my soul go, "Poof."

And once my soul implodes, I can't keep my mouth shut.

It's been on my mind for a while, and I initially really, really wanted to speak my mind in the comments section of that post. In a nice way. And let the original poster know that not everyone who uses food stamps abuses the system, and that the face he is associating with this program is a very different face from the one I know.

Because it's my face. And my mother's face.

But Facebook isn't the forum for that. This probably isn't, either. But I don't have a news show on MSNBC or Fox News, so this is about the best I can do.

So here it is, my rant on food stamps/EBT and government assistance programs in general.

Had you been behind my mother in the checkout line of the Barbourville A & P in the late winter of 1984, you would have seen a smartly-dressed woman with manicured nails pull food stamps out of her Aigner leather bag to pay for her Coke, some cranberry juice, Campbell's soup, and canned tuna. Oh, and maybe a Snickers bar. What would your judgement have been, had you seen this?

Here's the full story.

The woman, who you might have assumed was taking handouts she didn't need while you were working your butt off and paying for it with your tax dollars, was a beautician working three jobs, including one in a well-respected beauty shop on the court square in Barbourville. People walked in and wanted to be made beautiful by someone who looked like they knew what they were doing. Therefore, my mother scoured clearance racks in department stores for hours for the rare pair of almost-designer pants marked down to below $10. The nail girls in her shop kept her nails looking nice for free when she didn't have the time to paint them herself. She had just moved back to the area and didn't have a lot of clientele, so looking professional to try to snag new clients was important. She changed into old clothes before doing cheap shampoo-and-sets at the nursing home or cutting hair out of her own tiny 3-room apartment for friends and family who couldn't afford to visit her shop and who sometimes tipped her in cigarettes or small gifts of pens and notebooks for her young daughter.

The designer leather bag that caught your eye was a hand-me-down bought for a few dollars at one of her wealthy aunt's notoriously awesome yard sales.

The woman's daughter was sick a lot that winter and sick a lot in general. Every winter she got a sinus infection that made her lose her appetite and drop to a dangerously low weight. The mother often bought junk foods, like Coke or Snickers bars or Ruffles potato chips to try to get her sickly little girl to eat whatever sounded good just to get some calories. She didn't have much time to cook for her daughter with three jobs, and canned tuna and canned soup allowed her child to be able to feed herself.

Before she applied for food stamps, during this separation from her husband who was paying not one dime to her, her child sometimes went to bed hungry. There was food down the street at the little girl's Mamaw's, but she was elderly and on a fixed income and couldn't provide every meal and snack for the both of them.

There was a lot of macaroni and cheese made with government commodity cheese served in Mamaw's trailer.

Of course that woman was my mother. Who was embarrassed every time she pulled those stamps out of her purse to pay for something we needed. Who cried the day she went to the welfare office to apply for them. Who eventually went back home to live with her alcoholic husband because she couldn't afford not to.

Does the system get abused? Absolutely. But don't assume that the person you see using them is abusing them because she is well-dressed, or has nice nails, or is buying name-brand potato chips.

Or even steak.

That May, when we were packing up at the end of the school year to move back home, my mom wanted us to spend all of the food stamps we had left on my Mamaw to stock her fridge. We wouldn't need them anymore. She sent me to the grocery store with one of her friends and a list of my grandmother's favorites, which Mamaw couldn't afford to always buy herself. On that list was 2 t-bone steaks. My Mamaw had never in her life had a skillet-grilled steak until about a year before, when times were better for Mom and she bought and cooked one for Mamaw for dinner. She loved it, of course. So we used our last food stamps, in part, to treat her and my aunt to one again. As a thank-you for all they had done for us while we lived there.

And when my mom's friend did the math and told me there was enough left for 2 Snickers bars, I got them. And one of my favorite memories of me and my mother is sitting on the front stoop of our cruddy apartment on our last night there, eating chocolate, sharing a glass bottle of Coke, and knowing that that time of our lives was behind us. And that, God-willing, we would never again feel ashamed at the grocery store.

So there you go. It's easy to generalize. It's easy to judge. But when you put a human face on it...well, maybe the next time you feel your dander rise because the person in front of you paying with an EBT card, and you start scrutinizing their cart, and checking out their clothes and hands and accessories, you will be a little more forgiving. And not assume you know that person's story. We so rarely know someone's story.

End rant.

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