the shame and gratitude of food stamps

“Why doesn’t she just get a job?” “I’ve seen her at Whole Foods, she can obviously afford to buy her food.” “All she does is hang out with her kids and play, she’s not even trying to make money.”

These are thoughts I’ve had about other women receiving financial assistance from the government. Since I have judged harshly people receiving food stamps, I know for sure some people will judge me harshly. The truth is, I am in a position to receive food stamps because of the decisions I made up until this point. I made a lot of mistakes over the years.

Being on food stamps lends itself to keeping secrets. I own a business. If I talk about being so poor I need to be on food stamps, I risk a negative impact on my business. That hasn’t provided me with the income to be financially comfortable means potential new clients will doubt I’m worth hiring. A consultant who is struggling to make ends meet—no matter how unfair or wrong this is—is perceived by most as lower quality, less valuable, less worthy.

So, it’s a risk to tell you I’m not making enough money through to pay my bills. There are many reasons for that, but the most significant is limited flexibility and time. My priority has been keeping my children’s lives as stable as possible (being with them), so I haven’t made the time to nurture professional relationships, or, to follow up on the many requests for more information I’ve received over the last few years. The end result is I haven’t had enough work.

The struggle to be a freelance consultant aside, I think it’s accurate to say I have never made enough money to live on. Since college (class of ’91), I lived on credit cards, balance transfers, cash advances, several big bailouts from my parents, sporadic freelance income, and my former husband’s regular income. The shame I have felt about using government assistance is because, as I said, it’s my mistakes and poor judgment that brought me here. I need assistance because I screwed around and up for 20+ years. I’m not suggesting I was only irresponsible, but, regarding financial decisions I was foolish and clueless.

I have felt deep shame about declaring bankruptcy and receiving food stamps. Despite this, I’m investigating even more assistance options now, as I learned two relatively major clients are reorganizing and won’t need my help anymore. It’s a scary place. Knowing the nasty thoughts I had about people I knew peripherally being on assistance combined with a deep knowledge that “I did this to myself” has made it humiliating to talk about my real financial situation in any public venue.

However, as the woman who asked the final questions during my food stamps application review said (as I apologetically promised this would be temporary), “This is what it’s here for.”

Pretending I’m not as poor as I am is doing no one any good. It’s been making me feel dishonest and inauthentic. Shame is a feeling I refuse to live with.

As of January 2012, my daughters and I live in a safe, clean apartment in a great Portland location. My former husband and his partner/girlfriend live in the West End, only 5 minutes away (rather than a nearly 2 hour commute to be sure he stayed involved in our daughters’ lives). My billable work is not bringing in what I need it to, but, I have no debt and am living with a new awareness of the costs of living. The real costs of living. My girls and I have a new and sturdy foundation. I’m learning how to find significant cost savings (a friend who knows the social services systems has been a life saver) and to realize that a “big balance” in my bank account one day doesn’t mean anything because the numbers show I’m still not bringing in enough to pay all the bills. (This is despite my former husband being more than generous in his support of his daughters and their mother.)

When I went to the market last week and didn’t have to pay a penny for the food I purchased, I suddenly realized I want to not feel shame anymore. Using my EBT card (food stamps) makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery. It feels like this is a real chance I have to start over. Clear the slate and start fresh. Barring dental emergencies or my car breaking down (we’ll cope with the broken air conditioning this summer) in the very near future, we are starting to build our lives into a financially stable one. I can envision, for the first time in my life, the day when I will have savings. I plan to never take on debt again; it doesn’t work for me.

In writing this post, I know I’m discussing something people frequently find too personal for public discussions (money). But, I know I’m not the only one who has felt ashamed of being “cared for” by the government when it’s my own screw-ups, for the most part, that got me here. I’m almost to the point already, since last week at the market, that my shame is turning into gratitude. The fear that economic insecurity brings can be brutally overwhelming and paralyzing. But, gratitude for new beginnings and beautiful present moments is also a powerful force against the darkness of fear.

I will make good financial decisions today. Instead of “putting aside my pride” and applying for scholarships or more government assistance, I will recognize my real need and apply for those cost reductions and credits and money from a position of emotional strength. I will continue feeling grateful for the support I am receiving. I will not live in shame.

Talking about this with other people is how I will stop feeling ashamed and stay active in changing our lives, so, if you have any questions for me, please feel free to comment here or email me at heather at serenebabe dot net.

15 thoughts on “the shame and gratitude of food stamps

  1. This is making me think about something I hadn’t thought about in a while…My mom was told repeatedly by social workers she was eligible and she refused it. It may have put her pride into overdrive (and maybe her extended family’s), but it also may have forced our family to make necessary changes that could have cut chaos to an all-time low. Instead, we had to wait a few decades until she was so desperate that she couldn’t argue before we could ask for help on her behalf, long after the damage was done to her health, our family’s stability and the self-respect she was wearing away anyway by constantly being under so much stress (and all the mayhem that caused). It makes me a little sad to think how much more stable her life might have been had she had been able to get to the place you’re arriving at here. Then again, thinking of her, it makes me happy for you that you might be able to escape some of that turmoil.

    • There are so many things about this comment that I’d like to respond to. We need to hang out offline. Soon.

      For now, I’ll just say that adults commenting about their parents *not using* food stamps/benefits and how they wonder if their lives would have been improved has been a surprisingly common response! It’s very, very helpful, though, because it’s not easy to say “I know what I need to do for my children and getting assistance from the government is part of that right now.”

  2. “I plan to never take on debt again; it doesn’t work for me.”

    Well fine, if you want to screw up society and live like that go ahead!

    Strong piece. Well said. And by the way, I’m sure you area aware of this, but the fact that you aren’t in debt, puts you in a small minority in this country. Congratulations.

    • …yeah… no debt… um… yeah… bankruptcy…

      But, yes, I absolutely plan on destroying our economic infrastructure by refusing to take on debt. (The only problem I can see in the future will be when my 2000 Subaru kicks the bucket. Ideally, I will have saved money (hahahahah!) for a good solid used car to pay for without a loan (ahahahaha! I hope!).)

  3. I commend you for writing this piece. Even though lately all we see in the US is the general failure of support and respect for social services, I really think that the existence of various social safety nets is the biggest indication of a strong democratic society, and I think it’s really important that words like yours get heard/read so that people can understand that such programs exist to make themselves obsolete, not to turn people into lazy takers.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for commenting. I have been blown away by how positive the response to this piece has been. I really do appreciate you taking the time for it.

  4. I’m glad to read this, but I can’t help but feel something was left out. Like, an apology for your unkind thoughts (and likely spoken words) towards others on assistance. You just never know someone’s back story, you don’t know how they’ve struggled…You don’t know their earning potential, or lack of it, you don’t know if they are just now getting away from an abuser, you have no way of knowing if someone just ripped them off every cent they had, or what, you just don’t know.

    • Hm. My intention was to show that my negative comments were ignorant, unfair, unkind, and probably very wrong. The reason I started with those awful thoughts is because I think they are very common. And, now that I’m living a life that depends on governmental assistance, I am sure others will think equally lousy thoughts about me. Does that make sense?

  5. I commend you for this. I too am on food stamps because of a layoff. We also had to go on Medicaid for my wife and myself and my son because the high cost of insurance is just too much to bear. Do not feel ashamed about using the card. I happily pull it out because i know my family will have food for dinner, my son will have snacks to go in his lunch, and we do not have to eat mayo sandwiches ( I did that several years ago in the early 90’s. another “smart” financial decision on my part)

    Hold you head up proudly.

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