Congress is debating the reauthorization of the Farm Bill this week — a bill chiefly (strangely) concerned with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps as the program is often called. And at a time when almost 48 million Americans receive SNAP (the largest number since the program started 50 years ago), some legislators, and perhaps more immediately head-desking to my daily existence, Facebook friends argue that the benefits are too generous and/or are not an effective use of “my tax dollars” (as though SNAP recipients were somehow magically exempt from paying taxes). There is a lot of talk about bootstraps, and drug tests, and responsibility. And sometimes I’m not sure whether or not I really have the energy to remind them that “those people” they keep debasing are my daughter and me. Sometimes I’m tired of suggesting that maybe they, who’ve never experienced needing SNAP, are perhaps not the most qualified to decide whether or not it’s a necessary program. Perhaps they are far away from understanding the good and necessary help the program brings to recipients.
In 2008, when I became unexpectedly (scientifically and statistically astoundingly, really) pregnant, I learned that I qualified for Medicaid and SNAP. I was working full time managing a café, and my husband was in graduate school. We thought about his taking a break from school to work full time, thus potentially circumnavigating our need for the benefits, but decided that with only a year to go and the dramatic increase in earning potential in his field if he finished, it made more sense for us (and for the larger economy, incidentally) to just try to squeak through that last year.
The SNAP benefits were our lifeline for a while. Not only could I afford to buy healthy food for my family, but I could also cook meals for others to trade for childcare so that I could go to work. Food became a currency in my life, because other currencies were not available to me. And believe me, I had to work for it. My family’s file – the sole source of our identification as approved recipients of SNAP and Medicaid – was deleted. Twice. We just vanished from the system, and along with us, hours of painstaking work to get qualified. If you’ve never lived through the nightmare that is applying for aid through the office of Children and Family Services, I wish you a lifetime of ignorance. It’s awful, and grueling, and demoralizing. And the fact that anyone would smugly be thinking “Good. It should be awful. That’ll teach “those people” to work for their own and not mooch off the government” is evidence of the scariest human meanness. Because the truth is that most recipients of SNAP benefits are working. They’re working harder than you are. They’re working much harder than I am presently. Ironically, nobody calls me lazy now.
“It must be nice to just charge whatever you want to the government” quip Facebook acquaintances as they express their distain for the woman buying Cheetos with manicured nails and her SNAP benefits. No. It’s far from nice. In my experience, it’s a relief to feed your family, but pulling out your LINK card and seeing the person behind you immediately scrutinize your choices as you bag your food is humiliating. I distinctly remember wanting to scream “YES! I see that you disapprove of this box of funfetti cake mix! But it’s my daughter’s birthday and I am so busy working and otherwise bootstrapping that I can’t make a cake from scratch! Please stop being such a monster!” I remember feeling my face get hot as a clerk picked up the speakerphone to ask for a manager to approve my LINK card because the magnetic strip is demagnetized. I’d call to get it replaced but the last time I did that our file was deleted so please GIVE ME A GODDAMN BREAK!
I can blissfully say, “I remember” because I don’t deal with these things anymore. My husband finished school, got a great job, and additionally started a business. The business is so successful now that he recently left his day job. I spend my billable hours raising our daughter, going to school, writing, and performing. I sometimes find myself thinking that it was almost worth going through such debilitating stress and lack of resources because now I truly appreciate each instance of there being enough. As most folks who’ve been through life-altering times of financial hardship will attest, I would do almost anything to avoid going through it again, but I value the perspective I gained in the process. Never in my life have I felt so profoundly that I am on the other side of something. SNAP was a crucial piece of the bridge I traveled across to get here.
We – the “those people” my ignorant Facebook acquaintances refer to and the folks perpetually “other-ed” by anti-SNAP politicians – are the poster family for how SNAP is supposed to work. We needed a modest amount of help for a short time (which is true of most SNAP recipients). And now, because we got the help we needed, we were able to dig ourselves out. Now it really is “my taxes” that are paying for somebody else’s cake mix. I’m personally delighted with this arrangement. I’ve never felt so lucky in my whole life.
And that’s the way it should feel to have enough resources to support those who don’t. That’s why we decided to live all together and make a union with a government and all that jazz – to be some kind of “us.” Aside from all of the expert analysis supporting SNAP as an incredibly effective form of economic stimulus, boon to public health, and a number of other things that are indisputably in everyone’s best interest, supporting SNAP is saying yes to the idea that we matter to each other on the most basic level. It’s saying that it’s not ever going to be okay with us that some kids get to eat breakfast and others don’t. Supporting SNAP is acknowledging that little bit of help that many of us need at one point or another in our lives to get to the other side of something. And if you’ve never been over there, on that “something” side with “those people”, I’d like to suggest that perhaps your opinions on the matter should be tempered with a little more listening and imagination. It was me. But it could have just as easily been you.