I’m home with a sick kid today, which means I spent most of my morning catching up with the happenings on social media. My newsfeed is blowing up with one thing, Trump’s proposal on food stamps. Of course, since I surround myself with mostly very liberal or at least left leaning people, everyone I know is horrified by it. Some of my low-income friends who receive SNAP benefits are really insulted by the entire suggestion, and they should be. I’m insulted for them.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the current regime has proposed to cut SNAP (food stamp) allotments and replace half of the value with basically commodity foods. The things mentioned were shelf stable milk, canned fruits and vegetables, canned fish and meats, pasta, rice, and peanut butter. It’s basically every government cheese joke told on the elementary school playground come to life.
I grew up in a somewhat poor town in the rural south. We joked about government cheese a lot because most people got it, and all of us had eaten it. It wasn’t bad, but its presence in your home definitely marked you as a “have not” in a world of “haves”, so we did what kids do, and joked about it. My family wasn’t eligible for that type of help because we owned our land, but sometimes others would share their government food allotments with us, so I’m no stranger to those plain brown packages nor their no-frills, calorie dense, contents. While I was glad to eat it as a kid, the idea of bringing it back just strikes me as crass.
This also reminds me of another lesson I learned the hard way, this time as an adult. People in this country hate the poor. I have been mostly fortunate in life, but in 2011, two weeks before my youngest child was born, my then-husband walked away from his military career, choosing instead to work for $10/hr at a car dealership. This resulted in a situation where we had enough money to pay exactly 1/3 of our bills every month. It was an awful situation in every possible way, and to fully describe what it was like to go from solidly middle class to losing our house, having utilities cut off, and not having enough to eat, would require its own entry, or possibly a book. I do not think I have ever been more scared in my life than I was during those few months. The biggest lesson I learned was that people are really weird about the poor.
There were a few friends who stuck by me. They fed me even if they didn’t have much themselves. They bought things I sewed, even though I know they didn’t need them. They didn’t act like I was stupid. I will never forget the kindness of those few people. Unfortunately, they were in the minority.
Most people say really stupid things to poor people. They ask why you still have a car if you’re so broke, why you can’t move to a cheaper apartment, why you still own a stroller for your baby, why you still own your wedding ring. They don’t understand that not having a car isn’t an option in a city without reliable public transportation, that moving to a new place is more expensive than staying (and that on a reduced income, nobody would approve us as a tenant anyway), that I’d sold just about everything I could on Craigslist already, that that money had already been used for groceries, and what you see is the stuff nobody would buy. They would tell me I needed to put my foot down and make my husband pay those bills, stop blowing all the money, etc. They didn’t hear me when I said nobody was blowing money on anything, that it just wasn’t there.
As we slid down the poverty rabbit hole at fever pitch (all of this took place from May to November) I ended up without a phone. My doctor tried for months to get in touch with me over an abnormal test result, my birth control prescription lapsed and I had no way to schedule an appointment for more because I couldn’t call the doctor, and on two occasions, my kid was stuck at school sick with no way to get ahold of me. The kids didn’t go to the pediatrician because I couldn’t call for an appointment and couldn’t afford the gas to get there even so. When I told people about this, they said, “Cell phones are a luxury. You could still call 911 from yours in a real emergency.” as if that somehow made it ok that I was cut off from the world in general.
They had to believe that the situation I was in was my fault, that I somehow deserved it because I was stupid, and that their rationalizing of it meant it could never happen to them. I honestly think my situation scared them because it proved it could happen to anybody. I had been the wife of an Army Staff Sergeant. I had a brand new house and a brand new car. I had three kids who wore adorable clothes, and one who went to private school. I bellydanced and had lovely costumes. I cooked responsible, consciously sourced, whole foods to rival any hipster housewife. I paid for my homebirth in cash. I was any suburban mom, and when my husband at the time decided that his end of the deal was too much, all of it was ripped away from me and our kids so fast we hardly knew what hit us.
We burned through our savings in a couple months, and it didn’t take long after that for everything to just crash around us. It has only been within the past year that I have stopped fearing the sound of the doorbell, because during those few months, the doorbell meant we were losing our house or a utility was being shut off. I developed anxiety, my psoriasis got worse, and I just generally lived in fear because the basic things I had always been able to count on were not there because someone else made a choice not to provide them anymore. People do not want to believe this can happen to them, so they convince themselves that the people it did happen to, are somehow less deserving, less intelligent, less human. This is how they keep the fear of the reality that it can happen to any of us at bay. I know because I’ve been on that side of it, too.
The new SNAP proposal is born of the same mentality. It’s condescending and dehumanizing. Look at the way the articles in The Hill and several other credible publications are describing it. The administration officials are likening it to Blue Apron meal kits. This is extra insulting because canned goods in government boxes are nothing like Blue Apron, which is a gourmet meal kit service that even I, a working structural engineer, cannot afford on a regular basis. No poor person, no human being, will consider these things similar. The officials and their cronies rib each other, “Blue Apron for the poor, amirite?!” “Ah, good sir, yes, let them eat cake! Actually, wait, no, don’t let them eat cake. That’s an extra! Let them eat shelf stable milk and peanut butter!”
When you’re poor, you know you are, and the entire way you relate to the world is different. Nobody is more intensely aware of “have” and “have not” culture than the “have nots”. Marking the have nots visually in their kitchens is crass and disgusting. People should be trusted to feed themselves. I don’t care if all they want to eat is Cheetos, or if they buy the biggest birthday cake at HEB for their kid and the entire block. I DO NOT CARE. Let them do it. They deserve that tiny bit of normalcy because odds are, nothing else is normal in their lives.
With that said, the average poor person does not want to eat only Cheetos or buy a giant birthday cake. They mostly want what we all want, decent food that their families like to eat, familiar brands, comfort food, all the stuff for grandma’s soup recipe. Studies show that SNAP recipients eat mostly the same way as non-recipients. This idea that they’re blowing their allotments on stupidity is yet another manifestation of the mentality in which people convince themselves that the poor are stupid and can’t be trusted.
I know I got very personal on this issue, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant. The entire point is that everyone who’s in need has a unique story of how they got to that place, and it usually had nothing to do with the horrible failings we’re told usually result in poverty. It was a layoff, an injury, an illness, or maybe they were just born into really disadvantaged circumstances. This stuff is valid, and most of all, it’s human. It happened to me. It could happen to you. When we see poor people as human beings, we don’t want to do things like make them live on preselected survival foods, with no regard for their preferences, allergies, or intolerances, because we wouldn’t like that either. We trust grown adults with their own grocery money because we would want that if it were us.
It also occurs to me that Republicans seem to be the last remaining people who believe upward mobility is a thing that exists in today’s world. This means they think people can overcome bad circumstances, and move up to better ones. In some rare cases, this is true. I managed to get out of that bad situation, and things turned out ok, only due to some very rare circumstances. One big thing we can do to help people try to better their situation is to trust them. My mom taught Kindergarten for years, and she used to always say that kids will rise or stoop to your expectations of them. You tell a kid they’re bad, they’ll be bad. You tell a kid they’re a hard worker, they’ll be a hard worker. This is true of people of all ages. If we tell those who are in need economically that we trust them to choose their own foods, to feed their families the best way they can, to make good choices, they will do exactly that. This is evidenced by the fact that SNAP has the lowest rate of fraud and abuse of nearly any government program. We trust people to manage their own grocery budget, and not surprisingly at all, they do it. If we give them the government foods subscription box, we are telling them they are untrustworthy, and just generally unworthy. What do you think that’s going to do to people’s morale? It’s not going to help, that’s for sure.
Bottom line, can we please not be the country that does this? In today’s economy, with the volatile markets and the constantly changing job market, it could be any of us on the receiving end. Let’s find out every single elected official who supported this idea, and vote them all out as soon as we can. We can’t have this. We’re all people, and demand to be treated as such.