I still remember that day perfectly. It was spring in Albuquerque, the days were getting longer, and it was my birthday week so my mother decided to get us a treat: a small steak for my birthday dinner. It wasn’t much; it was a day past it’s “best by” date and a low-quality cut – but for us, it was splendid.
So we headed to the front of the store and got in line. That’s where it happened. As we waited, my mom went into her wallet and pulled out our food stamps – small, brightly colored bits of paper that could not be mistaken for anything else – and the woman behind us in line sniffed. Then she looked into our cart and said, “Steak? I wish I could afford steak. But then, the government isn’t paying for MY food.”
You guys. My mother’s face. I can still see it today. The tremble in
her hands, the flush to her skin, the tears in her eyes. She was
barely twenty five years old. She was smart, hard working, and still:
we needed the help. Her shame was profound.
So many of my childhood memories are colored by our poverty. I was an
asthmatic kid, and my mother and I spent night after night sitting up
trying to cope with my crappy lungs, hovering on the edge of emergency
room visits, which we always put off because of our lack of health
insurance. Even when emergency inhalers for asthmatics finally were
invented, we couldn’t afford them. Basically, I spent much of my
childhood unable to properly breathe.
When the incident with the steak happened, my mother and I were living
on $220 a month. Our rent – a tiny house with a rat problem in a bad
neighborhood – cost $150 a month. That left $70 a month for everything
else; gas for our car, food, utilities. We lived on that until
finally, when I was in third grade, my mother was able to find a full
time job working for a trucking company as a book keeper. Which she
hated, and it meant I was home alone after school (yes, at third grade
– I was a year ahead, too, so I was only seven). But she was able to
get us off food stamps, and we never got back on them again.
But the shame still lingers. Even today, at 43 years old, I can hardly
bring myself to use coupons. Those small bits of colorful paper remind
me of those food stamps my mother held in her trembling hand, and I
feel that using them is the equivalent of heralding poverty. Even when
my family had terrible financial times in 2010 I hated using coupons,
even as “couponing” has become a competitive sport.
I’m so grateful, now, that food stamps come in a debit card format.
But that doesn’t stop the judgment; I cannot tell you how many times
I’ve been in line at the grocery store as an adult and seen the
cashier sneer at a mom buying food for her family that way (or worse,
with those checks from WIC). Or watched other customers roll their
eyes impatiently when someone has to pay cash for some item not
covered by the food stamps (like, say, something as critical as
shampoo; it’s hard to get a job with dirty hair). It kills me. Why
does anyone think that they know someone’s circumstances? Why do they
think it’s okay to sneer at someone just trying to get by?
I beg you; the next time you see someone buy steak with their food
stamps, instead of judging, think about what they might be
celebrating. And wish them joy.
About the guest blogger:
Cecily Kellogg entertains tens of thousands on a daily basis. She lives in the Philadelphia area, is happily married, is mom to a fierce and amazing daughter, and has occasionally been called a bad ass. She writes at Uppercase Woman and tweets @cecilyk
photo credit: NCReedplayer