Look, over there. See them? They must be on welfare. It's the middle of the day; the cart is full of soda and chips. Maybe they could lose a few pounds? I mean, really. Can't they just get a job? From college graduate to welfare mom, I am now one of those "people."
When I approach the checkout lane at the grocery store, I swallow my pride each time I have to pull out my SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, card. The card sits upside down in my wallet, so if at another store it's not recognizable. Before the total price shows on the computer, I slip it out and hide it in my hand, ready to pay; hoping for a person working that won't shout out: Did you want to push the FOOD STAMP button or CASH button?
When I stand in line to check out, I wonder if someone guesses I'm on welfare. Do they judge me for buying some chocolate? Does a welfare mother have a right to buy egg salad at the deli counter? Isn't it cheaper to make it at home? Shouldn't they be eating more potatoes and rice? Don't they know that the other brand of ketchup is so much cheaper? The voices, of course, are mine. The guy behind me with bread most likely cares little other than maybe he should have chosen a lane without a special needs kids in it.
Sometimes the SNAP card won't work, or I'll calculate incorrectly how much money I have left for food. One time, with my son in an especially overactive mood, we had to "un-scan" items. The clerk shut down his light and put the "closed" sign on his register. He yelled for the manager. The man behind me grabbed his bread from the conveyor belt and went to the next lane. All this is perfectly normal behavior by people who work at a store. I was, however, a wreck and sweating so much I dropped the SNAP card I had perfectly clutched in my palm so no one would see it. While the items were being voided from my cart, I ran - twice - to stop my son from grabbing the glass spaghetti jar off the shelf.
I want to scream in the store, announce to the guy with the bread: I have a college degree! I've worked since I was 14 years old! Paid for my college education! I'm sorry I'm spending your tax dollars! I'm just in a rather tight spot at the moment. Each cart in the grocery store is filled with a story of pain, loss, sorrow, struggles, challenges, successes, hits and misses. So many of the stories of women on financial assistance are those who've faced domestic violence. My story seems to have it all - a basket of sorrows to fill several carts full, including the domestic violence. Plus, I've got this child, this special child.
Welfare, or as the program has been renamed, TANF for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is designed to be temporary. We get in jams, us humans. We make mistakes and after decades of trial and error, the system offers breathing room for those who find themselves in trouble. Though I can't speak for all, I imagine an enormous amount of people would really prefer having a good job, safe child care, and be free of domestic violence. At the basis of our desires, we want to earn our way. Over time, that can get hidden and suffocated, sure, there are those who take advantage. But there are those who find themselves one day, three feet from living on the street. There are those who make the street or hotels their home.
At the checkout that day, the clerk and I sorted out what I could buy. He turned his light back on and asked if I needed help to my car.
"No, thank you," I said. "It's only a small bag." I left college with the intent of making my way in the world. I've washed dishes, scrubbed toilets, and worked as a professional out "there" in the world. This bump, this glitch is temporary. My tribe begins a safer life, free from the violence and the dark path it leads down. By going through this phase of life, I understand at a deeper level the intensity that can bring one to need temporary assistance. We'll find our way out, we have to, it is a temporary program. At the other end, this safety net caught us in a time we could have fallen hard and perhaps never gotten up. I am so grateful it was there, I mean, really.
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