"Food Stamps, Pride"

A few weeks ago, I was driving to my friend Nick's wedding with another friend, Mike. We were catching up (it had been many months since we'd seen each other) and one of the things we commiserated about was our difficulty in finding jobs and relative broke-ness. I mentioned that I had recently gotten accepted into the food stamps program (startlingly easy in Oregon) and he said something like, when he was an unemployed, recent graduate, he had considered doing the same thing - but pride, or something like it, had kept him from applying.

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard a teaser for a show on the next morning's program about people who are on food stamps, many of whom had never in their lives thought they would need government assistance. A lady quoted said something like, "I make sure to dress well when I go to the supermarket so that I don't seem like the kind of person who needs food stamps..." I was interested. I hadn't thought too much about it, but the next time I went to the grocery store I felt myself eyeing the floor as I handed the cashier my EBT card (the "official name," they aren't stamps after all), and wondering what the other people in line thought of me using it. I realized I have almost the opposite reaction - I look too wealthy to be on food stamps; do the other people in line think I'm cheating the system in some way? Do they think I don't deserve it? I almost want to dress worse when I go to the store, to avoid that kind of judgment. But all three of these reactions (not getting EBT in the first place, wanting to look like you are above food stamps, wanting to look like you deserve them) all stem from the same source: pride.

I also never thought that I'd be on food stamps. But I'm hopelessly poor. I have never been good at saving or managing money (chalk that up to a standard upper-middle class upbringing, where I had everything provided for me), and it's really making life difficult right now. I am now about $500 in debt, am barely making rent, and an extra $200 a month to spend on food is a life-saver. A job I'm taking in August is a volunteer position, and though I will get my housing, food, and travel expenses taken care of, the additional $100 stipend per month will be spend mostly on my cell phone bill, leaving basically nothing for savings. Because I have this job lined up in August, for the last month or two I have not really been able to work at anything steady - I got a job at a coffee shop after searching for a month, only to have to turn it down because they wanted long-term employees only.

So now I go to the grocery store and pull out my EBT card and feel guilty. I don't have a family to feed; I don't have to wonder what might happen if I get sick and can't afford care because I can't get insurance. Unlike people who do have families and economic insecurity, I have my parents to fall back on if anything really bad happens. I wonder about the people who actually need government assistance - people without backup plans, people whose lives this economic recession has actually hopelessly burdened.

I feel especially bad about it because having $200 a month in food stamps means that I get the luxury of buying almost entirely organic. Granted, I would spend less if they offered me less... but I don't know. One of the most terribly difficult things about poverty is the fact that poor people can't afford to eat healthily. And here I am on food stamps, buying all organic stuff.

I was told at the office when I applied that there are hundreds of thousands of people on government assistance in Oregon. And I learned that there is "plenty" of money in the system to accommodate basically everyone that needs assistance. So there isn't some finite amount, some limit that we're getting too close to; so I'm not theoretically pushing someone else out of the way who actually needs EBT. But I still feel guilty.

Pride's an interesting emotion. It can cause some people to refuse help because they want to be more independent, they want to know that they succeeded on their own (Mike did end up getting a job and is doing relatively well. Not wealthy by any means, but he pays his bills). It can cause some people to try and project the image that they are above assistance, that this is just an emergency, that they will get it figured out soon and then be again a member of the "productive" class. And then it make some of us feel guilty and try to project the image that we are deserving, too.

If anything, the experience has given me, again, a glimpse into the lives of those we often ignore or don't see - those hundreds of thousands in whose favor the system does not work. The hundreds of thousands of (usually brown-skinned) poor folks who will probably always be on some sort of assistance. Who can work all day, try their best, and who will and whose kids will probably always be teetering on the edge of destitution.

It makes me think: is our economic system, is capitalism, working when hundreds of thousands of people need the government to help them simply eat each day? And when a few fat cats in high society screw up, in their greed-induced fervors, and send the economy crashing into oblivion, that upper-middle class university graduates end up needing help simply eating as well? Is there even a way that a country such as ours could transition into a fairer system wherein the majority of people at least have their basic necessities met?

I don't know. I'm not sure exactly what changes would need to be made. But I hope so.

No comments:

Post a Comment