I was a tad irritated when I saw the Gwyneth Paltrow Food Stamp Challenge tweet, but I think she’s a douche anyway so it really didn’t matter to me. Then I read this Huffington Post article that pretty much defended her, in a roundabout way. Honestly, the whole “challenge” doesn’t raise awareness; it ridicules people who are already feeling low to begin with. How do I know this? I was once one of those people.
It wasn’t that long ago; my daughter was about six months old and my husband had lost his job. As I was a stay at home mother at the time, we had no other income to rely on. What little savings we did have went quick, and the paltry $200 we received every two weeks for his unemployment couldn’t even pay the rent. To say we were between a rock and a hard place would have been an understatement.
I will never forget the day we had to swallow our pride, for our daughter’s sake, and go down to the social services office and apply for SNAP. I never would have thought in a million years that I would be on welfare, but there I was, surrounded by twenty other moms with screaming kids who were tired, hungry and just wanted to go home. If they even had a home to go to.
We received $423 a month on our SNAP card. To this day, I remember the exact amount because whenever I went into the store I knew I had to buy $200 worth of baby formula to get my daughter through the month. If she hit a growth spurt and drank a little bit more than usual, I would literally scrap the bottom of the can, dump it out into a bowl, do whatever I could to get every last drop out. We didn’t qualify for WIC because he got unemployment – that’s what they don’t tell you in that article either, that in some states certain benefits disqualify you from getting others. You have to pick and choose what’s more important. Sometimes you wind up losing the roof over your head so you can have food on the table.
Going to the store was the worst. The first time, I didn’t even think about it. I walked into the store, grabbed all the items that were on my approved list and went to the checkout line. It never dawned on me that I should ask if they actually took the EBT card. Back then, not every grocery chain did; now they do. I stood there, Coach bag on my arm, trying to pay for groceries with an EBT card they didn’t take. The woman behind me rolled her eyes. She didn’t know that the Coach bag on my arm was five years old at the time and bought with my own money when I was single and childless. I could feel the judgment roll off her in waves. To her, I was just another stereotypical welfare mom. In reality, I was a college-educated, married, stay at home mom who had just had the misfortune of having her only income stripped away. I wound up leaving the groceries and driving out of my way to a grocery store across town that took EBT cards. I also left my purse at home.
Every time I would take the card out, I was embarrassed. The clerk would always give me that look; they were never discreet about it. They always had to announce that if anything wasn’t covered by the EBT card, I would have to pay for it separately. I knew the rules. I memorized them backwards and forwards. I had no money to pay for anything extra. That’s what people don’t understand about being in that situation: we’re not proud about it. I wasn’t happy I had an EBT card. I was grateful it existed, but mostly I was ashamed. Every time I pulled it out, I felt like a failure to my child because I wasn’t able to take care of her basic needs.
I didn’t have the luxury of buying limes and kale. I had to make sure every meal was filling. We stopped buying organic and all natural products, mostly because the preservative-filled stuff was cheaper. My EBT dollars went farther when I bought what I considered to be “crap” food. Stonyfield YoBaby yogurt was out of the question when the store brand was a dollar or more less. You have to do what you have to do to get by.
We lived like that for seven months until finally, he took the first job he was offered, which was a lot less but it was work. We barely survived, and during that time our car was repossessed and we were behind on more bills than we could possibly count. Every cent we had went to our daughter and keeping a roof over her head and the lights on. I could not imagine living that way for years on end. All the times when I would go to my fridge or pantry and see nothing there, knowing it was another week until the card reloaded. There were times when we couldn’t stretch it and we painted fences or did other odd jobs around our neighborhood for money to buy her food. We swallowed our pride and took care of our child. When you have nothing, pride is something you can’t afford.
When I see articles like the one on Huffington Post, I try not to judge the writer too harshly, even when it’s my knee jerk reaction to do so, because then I’m no better than the woman behind me in the checkout line. She knew nothing of my life but figured it was just fine to comment on it. Gwyneth Paltrow knows nothing about what it’s like. That reality is as foreign to her as being a millionaire is to me. We can contemplate it all we want, but our assumptions are always wrong. The reality of food stamps is a bleak and stressful one. The recipients are not all scammers trying to buck the system. All I ask is that people don’t assume anything about them. Odds are they’re beating themselves up enough as it is.