No, you don’t understand (The Food Stamp Challenge)

0912_poverty_630x420It seems like every day I see some new politician, or news personality, or celebrity talk-show host discussing their recent eye-opening, life-changing experience of living for a month on a “Food Stamp Challenge” – the simulated grocery budget of a family on food stamps.

Invariably, when the receipts are tallied at the end of the month, and the last journal entry, or blog post is made, the summation of the experience begins with a heart-felt, “I never understood before…”

First and foremost I want to say that I know that something is better than nothing. I appreciate the desire to help, and whatever compassion, or empathy, or social awareness (or whatever you want to call it) that comes along with this experiment. I get that some good people are trying to make a difference, and I applaud that, but please don’t ever, ever…think that because you did a Food Stamp Challenge, that you understand.

Don’t think that you can load up a couple of bags of cheap groceries in the back up your Outback, cruise on home to your nice house in the ‘burbs, and fix dinner in your modern kitchen…and know what it’s like to be poor.

Ask any police officer if a one-night “ride along” makes you understand what it is to be a cop, or any serviceman or woman if eating an MRE makes you understand being a soldier. Yes, you can spend a faintly uncomfortable month paring down your food budget, heck – you might even lose a few pounds and gain a little insight, but until you live in their cheap apartments and ignored neighborhoods, wear their old clothes, feel their frustration and hopelessness, and lay awake at night with their fears…

All you’ve done is shopped like them.

Until you have carried those groceries home a hundred times, through two bus transfers, and an eight block walk through a rainstorm, past the drug deal in the parking lot, and up two flights of stairs to an apartment that may or may not have had the electricity turned off, (and it’s January)…

Until then, you don’t understand.

Until you have faced staring down long years of an unchanging life, the absence of hope for a better future (not in 30 days, or 30 years)…years where things like new cars (or any cars), nice restaurants, vacations, etc., anything beyond the grinding out of daily survival, are as far off the radar as a trip to the moon; watching your children grow up never “getting”, until finally they stop asking, until they begin to come to an understanding that these things are not meant for them, and you watch them begin to harden…

Until then, you don’t understand.

Until you you have looked at all the the things you cannot buy for them, cannot experience with them, cannot give them, and realize that while they can’t have things so many other children take for granted…but that the simple joy of a cheap fast-food meal, or a soda pop, or junk-food snack, or hell…even stupidly spending every penny you have for a ridiculously priced pair of tennis shoes…is a single moment of happiness that you, YOU, can give them (and yourself) now, as a momentary reprieve from the unending grayness of life. That the cheap sugar and salt and fat bomb will, for a moment, eclipse all of those hopes and dreams you had, and numb the crushing guilt and helplessness you feel every waking moment.

Does it make you feel like a bad parent?

Probably. But then, you feel that way every morning when you send your kids off to school in clothes they hate, on a breakfast of watered-down milk, every winter night when you tuck them into a cold room because you don’t dare turn the heat on…in fact, you feel like that all the time, and at least you get a smile from those french-fries. At least you can give them something besides the constant, bone-wearying, broken-record response of “No, we can’t afford that.” A brief blink in your day where you don’t feel like a failure…like if God really loved your children, He’d have given them to someone else.

(Btw – that’s not dramatic prose talking – I was told that by a woman in a soup kitchen, who was living with her three children in a tent.)

Until you’ve been ground down by year-upon-year-upon-year of life at the bottom of the well.

Until then, you don’t understand.

You see, I grew up with a woman who knew these things. A divorced invalid, raising a child in Portland’s ghetto neighborhood of Rockwood, spending the last week’s of many-a-month living on potatoes and government cheese…my mother knew these things very well. She understood.

And the assumption of understanding, based on a month of mild inconvenience (often with the an underlying smugness of “Well, it was hard, but it wasn’t that hard”…) disrespects a lifetime of hardship and sacrifices that she, and all of the parents like her (and some much worse off) went through, and go through every single day.

Frankly, it pisses me off.

Don’t get me wrong, by all means please help…but do something tangible. Empathy, or even sympathy, without action is worthless…worse that worthless, it’s counter-productive, as others will follow your example. I don’t need to have cancer to comfort an old friend who does, and you don’t need to “live on assistance” to help people who do.

Volunteer at a food bank, contact a local ministry or non-profit and be part of an outreach program, give to local charities, become a constant, burning, unyielding, pain-in-the-ass advocate to your local politicians and decision makers…and God bless those of you who do these things…I hope you don’t take offense at anything I’ve said here, as it wasn’t directed at you.

If, however, you want to know what it’s like to be poor, so you’ve “been there, done that”, do me a favor…do it for a year, in my old neighborhood, on foot, in the cold and dark, with your children…no life-lines…and I may begin to take your “experience” seriously.

Until then, no…you don’t understand.

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Categories: Rants | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “No, you don’t understand (The Food Stamp Challenge)

  1. I agree. There are multiple reasons I chose to do my food stamp challenge, and I’d like to share them with you.

    1) I was pissed off too at the politicians who do the challenge for one week and say they either understand or that it was sooo easy to do. It’s not. They don’t. I wanted to do a real challenge that helped–so it comes with recipes, shopping lists, frugal tips, and a book that anyone can have for free after I finish it when the challenge is over. Also, we’re donating the difference we usually would pay for groceries compared to what we are paying during the challenge to the local Houston Food Bank.

    2) I WAS on food stamps. I was a single mom with a newborn premature son and a daughter who was about to have major surgeries… I wasn’t able to work. I know what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet. I know, because I’ve been there. And I know that while doing this challenge you cannot ‘fake’ or ‘experience’ the despair, the hopelessly, the fear, the worry, and all the rest that comes along with it–and I wanted to TALK about that during the challenge and open a dialogue with people who are there now, so others can read firsthand what it’s really like. But I’m in a unique place to write about this, because I’ve been on both sides. I can see both perspectives, and I’m hoping I am writing as unbiased as possible to share this information.

    3) I wanted to try to make a budget for people to be as healthy as they can be, even while on food stamps, so I really am trying to give something back from the experience (the recipes, budgets and book) so that what I do can be replicated. I don’t want to be one of those people who writes a book and tells other people what to do when I haven’t put my money where my mouth is and done it. I want everyone to see that what I say works, and I know this, because I took the time to do it myself!

    4) All that said, my hope really is to raise awareness. I do hope to sway minds and hearts. I hope to show people who might be on the fence about just what poverty and struggling and food stamps and welfare are just what the reality of the situation is. I hope to open a dialogue where others can talk about this without shame.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. I’m hoping more people are willing to share theirs too, so folks can know that the ‘stereotypical food stamp’ recipient is anything but. We are normal people, who have had extraordinary (and these days, it’s becoming more ordinary) circumstances that put us in positions where we needed help. We’re not, most of us, freeloaders. We’re not takers… we pay our taxes too and we pay into the system just as much if not more (percentage wise of our salaries) than anyone else out there. And that’s the real face of food stamps. That’s what I hope people will see from this.

    Thank you again for sharing your views! (sorry to write a blog post on your blog comments!) I linked to you on my blog today!

  2. Pingback: Michy’s Food Stamp (SNAP) 30-Day Challenge: Day Six & Seven | Michy's Dishes

  3. Yes, indeed. The other big thing that doing the food stamp challenge cannot do is simulate what happens when someone gets sick and you have to find a way to pay for the doctor and the medications or even just over-the-counter symptom relievers, or when the refrigerator dies and you can’t afford to replace it so have to rethink how you shop and eat, or your kid’s school clothes get torn or split (because they’re too small) and you can’t afford to buy new ones until you next get paid, so s/he can’t go to school until then and have the school think that you aren’t committed to your child’s education.

  4. Kepi

    When I was first married and the Tots were weeble wobbles, we were on food stamps. When I became a single mom 9 years ago I was on them for a while until my career graduated me and my kids from them. I remember crying in the DHS office and the case worker whom I has worked with so many years hugging me. This is funny now but then it was bitter sweet, the Lord was growing me up and it was grand. But letting go of a security blanket such as this, difficult.
    A year ago, through a sad experience, I was terminated from my job. Of course there is so much detail to that statement but long story short I won my case of wrongful termination and received full unemployment for a year. Back on Food Stamps for about 6 months. I was employed within 30 days. I work and I work hard. Unemployment ran out about 3 months ago and now I work just enough hours (company doesn’t have full time work) to pay the bills and make ‘x’ amount over the federal poverty level to where I do not qualify for food stamps but do not have enough funds to last until next pay period. I feed myself and two grown children on food for $100 every 2 weeks. $50 a week, 3 meals a day. Yes it is do-able and no it doesn’t have to be unhealthy. When we have 2 or 3 days left to go its usually rice and cereal. My ‘needs’ are met with no give, no extra and portion control for meals is a must. Why does God have me here again? I don’t know. But I do know that when I made 40,000 a year I bought a smart phone, a new car, Starbucks (more than I should have), dress clothes for work, nails done and more. My kids were well. When I lost my job I would swipe my EBT card with phone in hand and get dirty looks. They didn’t understand. When I would put a food box in my new car they didn’t understand but the looks and comments were there. Some may say a second job is what I should do, true, I agree. I have a special needs son and can’t do it, he and my daughter are my first full time job and my second job after the office. I work, I was fired and 30 days later I was working again. I have been on and off food stamps. Now I am caught in what I like to call the ‘gray area’ make enough but not enough and sadly if I made less I would have more SNAP benefits. It is a struggle everyday. I totally agree with all you have written and thank you for writing it. We need to practice compassion, if it means living it literally then live it but you don’t have to, you just have to feel selfless for others and don’t judge a book by their cover, or phone, or car. LOL

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