I remember the day like it was yesterday and yet it was 21 years ago. And while I wish I could forget, I suppose shame has a way of burning a memory deep into your soul so that you never forget it.
I stood in the checkout line of the grocery store- a buggy full of food, my one year old on my hip, and my unborn son snuggled safely inside of my growing belly. I placed all my items on the belt to be rung up. Soon it was time to pay. I heard the people behind me click their tongues in disapproval as I reached into my purse and pulled out my food stamps.
I could feel the intensity of their scowls. Knowing I was being judged got the better of me. My hands shook as I counted out my stamps. In those days there were no debit cards- we had actual paper “money” with which to use. I could hardly hold the “bills” because I was so upset. I nervously tried to extend the stamps to the cashier but instead dropped them to the floor. They scattered about. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stooped to pick them up.
When I finally gathered them all, I handed them to the cashier, my eyes cast down. Shame overcame me and I felt the blood rush to my face. The line behind me was growing impatient, as was the cashier. She made a point to count them loudly. She placed them in the cash register and handed me my receipt. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
After I loaded my daughter and our groceries in our car, I sat and cried. I cried that hard, ugly cry. I was embarrassed and humiliated. It didn’t matter that both my husband and I were working or that he had just gotten out of the military or even that we had just moved to a new city and knew absolutely no one. All that mattered in the eyes of those at the store was that I was on welfare… I was young and had a little one… and was pregnant again. They didn’t care about our circumstances; they only saw what they wanted to see.
I might as well of had a scarlet “W” pinned to my shirt each time I went shopping because it was obvious that needing help and humbling myself to actually accept help at that time was a crime in many people’s eyes. The minute I went to pay with food stamps, people would change their attitude towards me. No longer was I just a young woman with a little one and another on the way; instead, I became a user, a drain on society, and someone worthy of judgment and condemnation. I became unworthy.
Social media is teeming with scathing memes and videos about those on welfare. I have read Facebook statuses that are condemning, condescending, and ridiculing those who receive services. I have heard people in the lines at the stores critiquing every item that is on the conveyor belt of people in front of them who are using food stamps. I’ve heard it discussed by people I highly respect and have been shocked to hear the lack of charity in their words.
I suppose I have a different view because I have been there. I know what it is like to have to humble myself to sign up for benefits and to then walk in a store knowing I will be judged and still have buy what we need anyway. I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and worse yet, day to day. I’ve faced the struggle to decide whether to pay the electric bill or to buy food and diapers. I’ve known what it’s like to say that I’m not hungry just so my child will have enough to eat. Those experiences color the way I see those who take part in the welfare system. I see the people behind the EBT cards. Even if they don’t show it, I feel their pain, their sadness, and their humiliation.
It’s not that I believe every person on welfare is using the system as it is intended. I know that there are many people who are fraudulent. There are many who have been raised in the system and have been encouraged to get as much as they can from the system. Generational poverty tends to do that to people. We have to ask ourselves though if the blame sits solely on those people’s shoulders when it’s all they’ve ever known, all they’ve ever been taught, and when there is no one teaching them otherwise how to live their lives differently.
We look at children who have been raised in abusive homes and we expect that one day they may become abusers too because that’s all they know. It may sadden us, but it doesn’t surprise us. But when a person who has been raised in a home that abused the system then abuses the system himself, we are shocked that he would do such a thing. We think that he should know not to do this and we forget that it is all he knows to do. It doesn’t make it “right” but it sure can make a difference in how we view those who are abusing the system.
On the whole I believe that those who are receiving benefits are not doing so to scam the system but instead are trying to make ends meet. Studies show that most who receive benefits are working and paying taxes. Perhaps it’s my rose-colored glasses that help me try to see the best in people, but when I think of a welfare recipient I don’t automatically think that they are just out to get what they “deserve”. Instead I think about how courageous many of them are to ask for help when they know that by doing so they will be accused of being drug addicts, incapable of holding a job, lazy, and worthless. Every decision they make will be scrutinized. They will be deemed as the lowest of the low, the bottom dwellers of our society, the socially inferior, and the morally bankrupt. Can you imagine someone thinking of you in those terms, especially when they don’t even truly know you? And yet day after day those who are receiving help face this exact judgment. Those of us judging should be the ones to feel shame.
It’s easy to look at someone and make a snap judgment about his or her life. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that all those who are a part of the system are abusing the system. It’s easy to make assumptions when we can’t possibly know or understand each and every unique circumstance.
The system is broken. I completely agree with everyone who makes this claim. But this doesn’t mean the system is not worthwhile. What it means is that we have to add in programs to go alongside of our welfare programs. We need to teach those receiving benefits how to choose good, nutritious foods and how to prepare them; we need to teach them how to manage money and budget; we need to provide counseling for those who experience generational poverty so that they can be taught not only job skills, but that there is a different way to live- that you can take pride in working and providing for your family and that the system is there to provide a hand up, not a hand out.
But it’s not only the welfare system that needs to be overhauled. We also need to make nutritious foods cost less than prepackaged food- a bag of apples should cost less than a box of Little Debbie snack cakes. If a bag of 9 apples costs $5 and a box of 12 Little Debbie snack cakes costs $1… what will you buy to make your money go further? Those who receive help often don’t feel like they can afford that bag of apples, at least not if it means that buying the snack cakes plus a couple boxes of mac and cheese as well as a few other items will cost them the same price as just a bag of apples. They can get more for their money when they buy the “crap” foods. Let’s make it more affordable to buy healthy items.
We need to place more emphasis on the importance of making a meal at home and eating together as a family. Our society has steered us away from spending time with our families. We are a people on the go now. Many times families eat dinner in the car on the way to the next practice. While there is good that comes out of extra-curricular activities, this lifestyle makes it easy for us to forget about eating healthy and instead encourages us to use drive-thru restaurants, convenience foods, and otherwise unhealthy options. If we could get back to sitting around the table with our families for our meals I believe we would see a tremendous change in eating and buying habits (as well as perhaps solve some of our other societal problems!).
Finally, we need to change our own hearts and minds. If we call ourselves Christians, and even if we don’t, we shouldn’t look at others with such quick judgment. We don’t know how difficult it was for someone to ask for help. We can’t know what they have been through in their lives that have led to this point where they are accepting help. More than likely (statistics show) they are working and paying taxes just like the rest of us but they just need a little extra help to get by. We don’t know why they are buying what they are buying (that steak might just be to celebrate a new job or to help them feel a little more like those who aren’t quite so poor); those things shouldn’t matter. What should matter is that they are human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Are we withholding those precious gifts because of what we assume to know about them? If so, shame on us!
I have been in that dark place where judgment and humiliation abound. I have felt the deep shame and self-degradation that comes along with asking for and then accepting help. At that time I felt like a failure even though I was not a failure. I was made to feel inferior and rejected.
I vowed to never make others feel the same way.
When I see someone paying with an EBT card I don’t look at them like they are sponging off of our society and making us work that much harder… no, instead I pray for them and for their situation. I pray that they will have all the things they need to make their way through this incredibly hard life. I pray God will bless them in every way possible.
It’s easy to think we are better than others because we don’t need assistance. The truth of the matter is we all need help from one another. There is not a single person on this earth who has gotten to the place he or she is at without the aid of someone else. Somewhere, somehow, we have all needed someone to help us out.
And that is ok.
That is what we are here for.
We can’t judge and love at the same time. We have to make a choice. We need to stop judging one another and instead extend our hearts and hands to help others rise up out of the difficulties they find themselves in. This is the only way we can ever experience true change.