Michelle’s Story: “If we hadn’t used food stamps, we would not have eaten.”

On November 1, all SNAP beneficiaries will see their monthly assistance cut by 5.5%–so an individual’s maximum monthly benefit will be $189, not $200. With inflation and rising food prices, that $11 difference, or a $36 difference for a family of four, means those who face a real struggle to eat can afford even less.

Today, 1 in 7 Americans receive SNAP benefits, but even more than that live in poverty and struggle to feed their families. Yet current bills in the House and Senate would put through additional cuts to the program to ensure even less receive food assistance.

So who are these people on SNAP? While reporters can easily find the one or two outlandish stories of people who abuse the program, the other millions who receive assistance do so quietly. There’s nothing glamorous about swiping your SNAP card; its humiliating and embarrassing. Their story is hardly told, though.

st. louis 2

Michelle lives in St. Louis, Missouri: the gateway to the west. Two of the city’s largest employers are Boeing Defense and Scott Air Force Base, and the city is often remembered because of the iconic arch that arcs across the sky. But the city also has a struggling side. 15% currently live in poverty, 34% live in the lower class, and 20% report struggling to be able to feed their families.

Michelle grew up in one of these families, and through Half in 10’s “Our American Story” project, we are able to share her real and personal story below.

A few days ago, an acquaintance I went to high school with posted this picture on Facebook:

“The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is proud to be distributing the greatest amount of free meals and food stamps ever. Meanwhile, the National Park Service, administered by U.S. Department of the Interior, asks us to ‘Please Do Not Feed the Animals.’ Their stated reason for the policy is because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves. This ends today’s lesson.”

Here, people on food stamps are compared to wild animals and the implication is very clear that those who receive free benefits “will not learn to take care of themselves.”

I have a story.

I was on food stamps for quite a while during my adolescence. After my parents divorced, there was a nasty custody fight, a lot of quibbling over child support, and a long, long time where all parties involved were a standstill. Court orders were ignored, feelings were hurt, my sister and I were drug in and out of courtrooms for years.

My mom had been out of the workforce for my entire life. She had a steep learning curve ahead of her when it came to getting back, but she was determined to support her family, and she worked really hard to overcome both her lack of experience and issues with anxiety that made it hard for her to leave the house. She was brave, she was determined, and I am proud of her.

But that path wasn’t easy. And there were times when it didn’t work out all that well. And, yes, for many of those times, we used food stamps.

If we hadn’t used food stamps, we would not have eaten. It’s that simple.

Also, there were jobs that my mom had to turn down because the rules for food stamps were so strict that—if she’d accepted them—she still wouldn’t have been able to afford food because she’d have had to pay daycare for my little brother and the money she’d made would have disqualified her for aid.

I know emotions run high, so I typically just ignore the inflammatory stuff being shared on social media sites. But this one hit a nerve, one that I didn’t even know was particularly raw. For some reason, this was the first time that all of these “welfare is for lazy people” quips felt like a personal attack. And there are plenty of them. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen cartoons that depict poor people as people who are getting assistance are just trying to game the system so that they don’t have to work for themselves. It’s incredibly over simplistic, and it pretends that welfare is some sort of free ride in the lap of luxury when the truth is that the average benefits are barely enough to make ends meet.

I take a lot of issue with this narrative, especially the image that sparked this post because rather than suggesting that people who are already lazy seek out loopholes and handouts from the system (which, really, is bad enough), the “don’t feed the animals” argument suggests that getting help during a time of need is what makes someone lazy to begin with.

Watching my mom struggle to figure out how to get back on her feet after the divorce destroyed every safety net she had was sobering and terrifying … but in some ways it was also inspiring. It made me prouder of her than I’ve ever been. She navigated a minefield, and she didn’t always make the right steps, but she came out on the other side and she works hard to keep her household together (without food stamps, for what it’s worth.)

It also inspired me to work hard, both out of necessity and out of determination. On a typical day in high school, I got up early and tutored for an hour before school, worked at fast food restaurants in the afternoons, and worked other odd jobs on the weekend. I’m not telling you this to be all “woe is me,” and I know that there are plenty of people out there who had/have it harder. I had what I needed: a roof over my head, clothes, and food. But I also paid bills and bought most of my own food and clothes.

Then I worked at least two jobs all through undergrad. I would spend time between classes working in the Writing Center on campus and evenings and weekends working at Wal-Mart. I graduated summa cum laude and went to graduate school, where I also worked multiple jobs.

I vividly remember sitting in a classroom my senior year of high school. I was exhausted, having worked until close at a Dairy Queen the night before and getting ready to go right back as soon as school let out. A group of kids were sitting around chatting about cars, and one girl had started to dominate the conversation because she was getting a new car that week. As they discussed their preferences, I was thinking about my car (which I’ve talked about in the past): a rusted-out Dodge Shadow convertible with a broken top. It cost me $300. I said prayers that it would get me to my destination without incident every time I got in it. While I’m thinking about this, I hear the girl go off on a rant about how her parents weren’t letting her pick the make and model of her brand new car that they were buying for her. It ended with the line, “and so I said to them, if you aren’t going to let me pick the car I want it better be fully loaded!” Yet I’m somehow the one getting set up for future work ethic problems because my mother wanted to make sure we could eat.

There are plenty of things you can criticize about me—my cluttered house, my somewhat tragic fashion sense, my tendency to get overwhelmed by numbers, among other things—but you can’t question my work ethic. It’s strong.

  1. Read more stories from Half in 10’s “My American Story” database here. 
  2. Photo Title Photo courtesy of  Ron Reiring. View more photos here. 
  3. Postcard Collage courtesy of Kopper. View more photos here. 
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