I just got food stamps for the first time in my life. I struggled with the decision as a white grad student in my thirties: I’m supposed to be a sort of respectable middle class poor, not food stamps poor. I’m supposed to boot strap my way through grad school, eat ramen, get an extra job. Food stamps would be an admission of failure.
The truth is, I also have a diagnosis that requires me to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of rest, and grad school and a part time job is already a full time job. I don’t make very much money, and I have student loans. When I’m short, I use my credit card. And if it’s a choice between credit card or food stamps off setting my $13,000 a year salary, the food stamps are worth it. Given how much I’ve paid the U.S. treasury in tax dollars over my lifetime, it feels like a return on my investment. I am not going to feel guilty about $100 a month in food stamps when my tax dollars also fund wars and pay politician salaries. So don’t tell me I’m a “drain on society,” especially when I’m broke getting a professional degree in a social service field.
I racked up a tremendous amount of credit card debt in my late twenties when I was unemployed or underemployed. It wasn’t until I landed a steady job that I realized I could have applied for food stamps. I guess I had this mentality like my delusions of middle class whiteness made me ineligible, when really it would have really had a positive impact on my long term financial outcome. I guess part of it is I grew up on food stamps as a kid, and I wanted to project some false image of upward mobility now that I was college educated.
I did not rack up tremendous debt on irresponsible shopping sprees. I got it from buying groceries.
The thing about finally getting a stable job when you’ve been credit card dependent for four years is you still can’t get ahead. What might be enough to get by normally gets eaten up by paying the cards, which seemingly never shrink. The debt stops seeming real, and it never goes away. You accept it. You get blase about charging things because what difference does it make anyway?
Part of why credit cards are more seductive than accepting public aid has to do with stigma, and privacy. Credit cards are private debt. Nobody has to know but you, your lender, and maybe your spouse. You don’t get dirty looks when you use your credit card at the grocery store because you can pretend you just want the points to save up for some imaginary trip to the Bahamas, and that you will pay your balance in full at the end of the month. You can’t pretend that when you use food stamps. You are a parasite.
The worst, honestly, is when I’m at the natural foods co-op, buying shit like organic kale and goat milk yogurt, which is $6 a container. I am not buying it because I am some extravagant person, I am allergic to the whey in cow yogurt, and I rely on yogurt as a dietary staple when I’m too busy to cook real food. It’s cheaper to eat yogurt than eat out. And sometimes I shop at the co-op because it’s two blocks from my house instead of a mile like the regular grocery store, and I am too broke to own a car. When you check out there, you have to tell them you’re using SNAP, you can’t just anonymously slide your card. You have to out yourself as poor. And I feel like a sham to be buying expensive groceries on food stamps.
The price you really pay when you use food stamps is publicized shame and judgement. People post garbage to facebook about how people on food stamps shouldn’t have children (because family is a privilege of the rich?) or Iphones. I have an Iphone. I bought it with student loans, and my parents pay my phone bill. There’s this sense that poor people should not have nice things, should not deign to live on anything but ramen, buy expensive clothes, or own technology. Despite these things are critical for being taken seriously and surviving in society, to have any chance of upward mobility, and reaching the point where you don’t need food stamps anymore.
When was the last time you saw a meme on facebook that “people with credit card debt shouldn’t own Iphones?” You don’t. Because credit card debt is socially acceptable form of poverty. It’s ok to charge that Iphone you can’t afford, but not if you need help buying food. Huh?
I refuse to be ashamed, when the problem is not me. The problem is a society where wealth is so unequally distributed that anybody needs food stamps, and where playing rich with credit cards is considered more socially acceptable than admitting that you’re poor and need help.