My daughter and I were living in a conservative area when I started to notice an outcry to test people receiving public assistance for drug use. I relied on food stamps to help make ends meet at the time, while I was working full-time as a housecleaner and going to school full-time online.
Social media was my social life, and a few anti-welfare memes or slogans were going around that started to hit home for me. One said that if a person could afford to buy cigarettes and alcohol, then they could, therefore, afford food, and shouldn’t be on food stamps.
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Not only that, it seemed people were carefully watching over what people purchased with their food stamps and heavily judged them for it. One person remarked that she couldn’t believe a family bought so much junk with food stamps with their kids “dressed to the nines” in fancy clothes. That makes no sense, I thought. Why is it bad that the kids had nice clothes to wear? Were they supposed to all look like a pack of orphans straight out of the movie Annie?
The assumption that, because a person carries a nice purse, or has a child with them who’s wearing shiny shoes and a lacy dress, there must be money they’re hiding, and therefore taking advantage of the system, is a bizarre judgment. Like people living in poverty should dress in a way that’s downtrodden so everyone around them can see how much they’re struggling. I admit, I always jumped at the chance to buy my little girl a nice outfit. Even though they were impractical, the shiny shoes we found at a consignment store for $3 brought her so much joy. She’d dance around, twirling in a dress and would wear the outfit for days.
Lawmakers have joined in on the attacks against people on public assistance. Recently, a bill proposed in New York suggests that people on food stamps shouldn’t also purchase “luxury” foods, like steak, lobster, cookies and cake. In West Virginia, a bill passed through the Senate, limiting the foods that families can buy with food stamps to the same ones mothers can buy with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children: milk, cheese, eggs, bread, beans, peanut butter, juice and a few other items depending on the age of the children in the home.
Kentucky Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell famously pushed the most restrictions of any state on how people receiving a cash amount from the state can use their funds. He restricted swimming pools, movie theaters and video arcades.
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All of this begs the question: Why are the poor expected to not have any nice things?
I’ve been a freelance writer for about a year, and have published several articles about my experiences living well under the poverty level. Even though it’s generally best not to read the comments, I do. What fascinates me is that most of the negative comments not only further perpetuate the stigma that people on government assistance are taking advantage of the American taxpayers, but that they also are almost identical to what I’ve heard people say in real life.
Poor people shouldn’t have smartphones. Poor people shouldn’t have tattoos. Poor people should sell nice cars to pay for food. Poor people shouldn’t have a nice purse if they’re buying groceries with food stamps. Poor people’s children shouldn’t be dressed well. Poor people shouldn’t have children, period.
Some of my friends have said these things to me. I’ve seen posts on Facebook judging people for buying chips and soda with food stamps. I’ve seen memes picturing a woman holding 40-ounce beers and cigarettes and handfuls of cash boasting about a fat tax refund.
What’s interesting to me is that I also see so many links to donate money to families with medical issues, or dogs needing surgery. Somehow that’s a respectful way to ask for help. But for a person to turn to a system that is set up to supplement wages that are too low, or work that isn’t enough, that’s somehow taking advantage.
Nobody runs to the public assistance office, skipping and smiling to get food stamps. It’s a shameful, humbling experience to admit that, despite all your efforts, you don’t have enough money to feed your kid.
Because at that point, it’s not really about you anymore — the cupboards are bare and it’s way past the point of worrying over the effects of serving pasta every night. But the award letter that comes in the mail, giving the amount of money available to buy groceries with, comes at a great relief.
When this happened to me over the years, after I’d put off applying for assistance for as long as I could, getting that letter meant a trip to the store without the stomach-knotting stress. I could buy my kid a treat. I could get her the juice boxes she liked. I could buy strawberries. I could get her a cupcake.
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Over the years, I’ve tried to form theories on why some people get so miffed about their tax dollars going to food stamps, even though it comes out to about 10 cents a day. Maybe they don’t think it should be a government’s responsibility to feed and clothe the poor. Maybe capitalism, the American dream of working hard to succeed, includes leaving people in the dust. Maybe Reagan’s “welfare queen” narrative is too far engrained: that the poor don’t work, they take advantage of the system.
It’s because of attitudes like these that the stigma surrounding the impoverished is one of shame. But, to spin off of the Dr. Seuss phrase, a person is a person, no matter how poor.
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