In the winter of 2011, my husband got the news that there had been budget cuts at work, and he was being laid off from the job he’d had for 10 years. The shock I felt at hearing the news was physical, a sick panic that coursed through me. We had a 5-year-old son, and I was pregnant with our second child. In one quick instant, our family lost its main source of income as well as our health insurance.
My husband had just completed a program to become a certified teacher, but he hadn’t found a teaching job yet. While he looked for work, he was able to collect unemployment, and he subbed when there was work available. Our 5-year-old wasn’t in full-time school yet, so I cared for him during the day, and worked evenings and weekends as a postpartum doula and lactation counselor.
But it wasn’t enough. Our second son would be born soon, and we didn’t know how many more months we could tear through our savings, or rely on whatever help our families could afford to give.
So, we did what we never really imagined we’d do. We applied for government aid: SNAP benefits (food stamps) and Medicaid.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t known anyone who relied on public assistance: In fact, both my parents and in-laws had used food stamps for some period of time in their early years of marriage. But I simply didn’t think my husband and I would ever get to that place. We were two college-educated, successful adults: It just didn’t seem like something that would be in our future.
Financial hardship can happen to anyone, at any time—no matter what your life looks like or what hopes, dreams, and aspirations you have. Receiving government aid doesn’t mean you aren’t trying your best to provide for yourself and your family. Most people on welfare are trying really hard; many are working more than one job and still not making ends meet.
Until I began receiving government aid myself, I wasn’t fully aware of the myths that are out there about families who receive it. And I didn’t realize how many misconceptions I myself had. Although my husband did get a job about a year later, and my family is now in a more stable position than we were, I am forever changed by the experience.
I no longer assume anything about a family who is on welfare. I don’t know their story, and it’s not my place to judge. I have learned that a lot of what happens to people financially is out of their control, and that many more people than you might realize are struggling financially.
Here are other facts I learned about poverty, the process for receiving aid, the stigmas, and the often flawed realities of how some of the programs work:
1. Applying for government assistance can be a time-consuming, difficult process—a full-time job in and of itself.
My husband and I had to go back to the SNAP office several times to complete the process. We had to get childcare for our son, my husband had to miss days of job hunting and interviewing, and we had to wait in epic lines only to be turned away because we didn’t have correct paperwork.
2. Sometimes the stigma of receiving government aid stops families from getting benefits that would greatly improve their lives.
I know several families who would have qualified for aid, but didn’t want to apply because they feared the judgment of others. It pains me to hear this kind of thing, but I don’t fault these families. It’s all of us who are responsible for educating ourselves about welfare, and choosing compassion over judgment.
3. SNAP benefits (food stamps) don’t always cover a family’s whole grocery budget.
Families get different amounts based on income and family size, but it often doesn’t meet the needs of the entire family. Even after cutting our grocery bill down as much as possible, we still had to pay about half of our grocery bill out of pocket. We were lucky to have some savings we could use for that, but not all families have that to fall back on.
4. Often, families on SNAP will choose less expensive, lower-quality foods simply because the spending amount allotted is too low to allow for better choices.
It’s a big myth that families on food stamps are going out and buying fresh steaks or cartfuls of organic produce. The reality could not be further from the truth, and the misconceptions about this one need to end right now.
5. People on unemployment must be actively looking for jobs in order to continue receiving it, and there are processes in place to ensure this.
Here’s another one where people assume those on public assistance are taking advantage of the system. Our family got more than one threatening letter from the unemployment office (it was because of a clerical error that took some time to clear up). Unemployment never felt like an easy “handout.”
6. Medicaid is a wonderful service, but it also has problems.
It can take months to get insured (it took us close to two months to get our coverage certified), and there are fewer choices in terms of medical specialists. We couldn’t find a covered pediatric dermatologist in our area; thankfully, we weren’t facing a medical emergency, but I wondered what would have happened if we were, and coverage for our specialist wasn’t guaranteed.
7. Poverty affects many more people than you might think.
As of the 2014 Census, 47 million people in America were living in poverty. 15 million were children. Think about that for a second. Let it sink in. That’s more children than you can imagine. That’s millions of children whose health and livelihood are in jeopardy every day. But it’s not just impoverished families who seek public assistance. Financial demise can strike any kind of family; it doesn’t discriminate.
We have real work to do. The government assistance programs we have in place are wonderful, and I was grateful they were there for me in my time of need, but we need more programs, better programs, more accessible programs.
This is about real people, real lives, and real children. Judgments do not belong here. And this goes beyond politics: It is simply unacceptable to think that there are millions of children living in poverty in 2016, in America. We need to strengthen the systems we have in place so that no mother will ever wonder where her family’s next meal will come from, and no child will ever have to go to sleep with an empty belly.