Crab Legs and Food Stamps

Okay, I’m running around pulling last minute details together for the book tour….and excitement of all excitement, we dropped the ebook! Tomorrow it’s a free download, so check it out! The Esau Emergence In any case, I drove down to the folks’ place to get the camper. James L has it all spic and span…does anyone besides me remember that? I brought a terrific steak dinner to celebrate and honor his work. I also brought along a bottle of Preston Vineyards of Dry Creek Cinsault….this is a real treat because it’s part of my wine club stash. Not that they’ll notice, but I did. James L and I drank the bottle. Yum!

After dinner, I was trotted out to the folks’ friends for dessert and coffee. Note my father is 74 and my mother is 66. Their friends might be a tad older, but now you have the demographics. I’ve mentioned that my folks have gone a bit Fox News/Tea Party/Right Wing. You can imagine how their friends think. It’s a brain trust of political and cultural paranoia. I’m stepping out on a limb here….I voted for Obama, twice. I’m disappointed that he didn’t kick down doors, kick bipartisan ass and blow the system out of the water. Note, I think a flat 25% tax on EVERYONE would simplify things. If I made more money, I’d gladly pay more taxes. I’m not anti-gun. I’m anti violence and anti extreme anything. I was a practicing Buddhist for many years, now I’m what a friend calls “Kitchen Buddhist”, but I do eat meat. Paleo all of the way baby!

My folks want to show me off. They haven’t read the book. My mother will probably NEVER read any of my books because it’s impossible for her to pass off “Oh, I wrote a book once” as she likes to pass off…”Oh, I played volleyball in high school.” “I sang in the glee club.” “I was an extra in West Side Story.” Okay, she was an extra in West Side Story….you can see the side of her head. Still, they brought up the book. James L wanted me to tell the Joe Pepper story. See Working Towards The Walkabout. He loves the Joe Pepper story. Things wound down quickly….I’m not Tom Clancy, who was mentioned several times.

The conversation turned towards politics, guns, and not cloning Obama. It was a colorful conversation. Somehow the topic turned to welfare and food stamps. I must give you some backstory here….I was an air traffic controller for 10 years. I married at 21. I had three children by the time I turned 27. The marriage wasn’t a great one….we both had a lot of heavy baggage. It ended with my broken nose, a damaged larynx and a cracked cheekbone. At the time, the end of my marriage was the best thing that happened to me. The short end of the story….I lost my job, found out my ex-husband was grossly mismanaging our funds and everything we owned was either in process of being repossessed or foreclosed.

With the help of my extended family, I was able to hang on to everything until I could sell it all. I mean ALL. I moved into HUD housing, applied for food stamps and took stock of where I was at 29. Three small children, no job, no resources and too much education. I spent four years in HUD housing. I spent four years taking food stamps. My folks know this. The conversation basically went like this:

“Anyone can just walk in and get welfare and food stamps.”

“It’s so easy.”

“When I was working at blah de blah, a guy and me went down to apply. They said if I had debt I could get food stamps.”

“So if I bought a bigger house and a new car, I could get some food stamps.”

“We should apply for food stamps and get us some crab legs.”

There was a much longer conversation than that….and it was infinitely more insulting. I’ve learned the hard way that some windmills don’t need tilted. I kept my mouth shut astonished to hear some of the worst things pop out of my parents’ mouths. Needless to say, I had to balance my appreciation for the help and work that James L did on the camper with the vile and ridiculous things that came up in that conversation.

Anyone on food stamps can tell you that the application process is humiliating. There are stacks of paperwork. Verification of your entire life. There’s an interview process. Lots of explaining about why you need help in the first place. There’s a waiting period. During which, you don’t have any resources to buy anything. This is a process that takes place EVERY month the entire time your receiving food stamps. Note I didn’t qualify for WIC, which are funds that you can use to purchase non-food items. Here’s the deal with food stamps…you can only buy food. No toilet paper, no toothpaste, no diapers or tampons. You can buy any food you want, but that’s it. Only food.

Would this group of people be happy if I fed my children Wonder Bread and cheese product? I received 450.00 per month for a family of four. I clipped coupons. I watched for sales. I signed up for food boxes from the local charity. I worked it, but my kids never ate Wonder Bread or Velveta slices. Hey, I’m not knocking Velveta…it makes fabulous macaroni and cheese, if that’s what you’re craving. I just happen to make a bomb diggity mac and cheese with gruyere, bacon and shallots. Takes about the same amount of time. We ate healthy and fresh food.

The other humiliation factor is paying at the grocery store. The first six months I was receiving food stamps they were actual paper certificates. It was obvious to everyone in line what they were. You should’ve seen the looks people gave me. I was in line with three kids ages five and under. I look ten years younger than I am….hallelujah James L and your fabulous genes, but many folks mistook me for the babysitter until one of the kids called me Mom. Boy howdy, you haven’t seen a crowd turn so fast to fires and pitchforks. Add to the flames, I was paying with food stamps. It improved later when they instituted the EBT card, not much but a little.

Here’s the thing about welfare and food stamps. Not designed to help you OUT of poverty, but specifically designed to keep you IN poverty. I lived in an apartment complex full of single mothers. We were participants in a program called Project Self Sufficiency. It’s a great program for a lot of women. I almost didn’t make it into the program because I already had a college degree. It wasn’t in anything I could use, so that was a saving grace. Two of my friends, all of us were working, going to school and raising kids, had to turn down a ten cent raise because it would eliminate their eligibility to receive food stamps. They couldn’t feed their family on that extra .10 cents, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t gradually reduce the amount of help you received….it frequently slashed it. Both of those women had to turn down promotions and raises in order to keep their benefits.

All of this was going through my head as I listened to these people discuss something they knew nothing about and what they’d heard came from Fox News. Ay yay yay! Looking back, I know that my family was in the middle to upper middle class. We had a boat and a camper. My folks went on vacation a couple of times a year. I had to work for my allowance. When I bought a car, I had to quit tennis and theater to get a job, but though my  mother was an accountant, she never taught me about money. I learned the hard way making my pennies count, taking out 24,000 in student loans and scraping any scholarship I could get. A dear friend at the time started pushing me 120.00 a month to help me with the incidentals….gas, toothpaste, paper towels because I couldn’t use the entire 450.00 in food stamps every month, but I was always short on the necessities.

This change in career….really a move toward my true life work….was terrifying for me. The hubby finally pushed for it and it still bothers me some days that I don’t have my own income. He never asks me what I spend our budget on or comments on the menus I plan. He’s 100% supportive of this move. I’m not ashamed of the help I received on welfare and food stamps. Just like many other people, I worked my butt off to change my circumstances. Not everyone is milking the system. A lot of people are stuck between a .10 cent raise and feeding their family….system’s broken and not in the way my folks and their friends think.

It’s the luxury of people who’ve never in their life known that kind of humiliation or strife to comment on the general condition of the rest of us who have known it or are still living it. Needless to say, my folks don’t think social security is milking the system. My mother lives for her Medicaid sponsored surgeries. This is a generation of the privileged class…those boomers who lived in an America when you COULD work for a company for 25 years and earn a pension. They lived in a time when their standard of living was easily improved. I’ve had three careers now….the current average is four in a lifetime. The days of working for any one company long enough to earn a pension are over.

They go on and on about how it’s a different world out there….filled with Mexicans (one of which both my mother and I are), President Obama and the rise of Socialism, but they’re clinging to the way things used to be. I’m moving forward….we all have to keep moving forward if we want things to improve. Let’s keep that pendulum swinging toward equality and common sense. If you don’t believe in something….don’t do it, but please let the rest of us choose for ourselves.

In the meantime, catch yourself when you’re making judgments about people…you don’t know their story and believe me…we all have more than one. It might be one step between you and the help you’re criticizing others for taking. Grace and kindness, damn it!