This New Year’s Eve and I was preparing to travel in the snow to visit JCB, my blogging partner in crime. As I was preparing my breakfast, I got to thinking about how much cheaper it is to go grocery shopping where JCB lives on the outskirts of an impoverished suburban city. Then I got to thinking about how much I missed shopping there because the prices are so reasonable. (read: It’s cheaper to shop in the ‘hood.) Long story short, it jogged my memory about my experience with the New Jersey welfare system. A lot of people have no idea I was even on welfare. As this blog is about food, thought, and discussion, I thought it was particularly fitting to come out of the proverbial closet and tell my story.
I moved back home when I was in graduate school because I ran out of money. My mother was recently out of work and both of us were struggling with each others presence. I’d just purchased a car that summer (because my sixth lemon stopped working and I honestly thought I’d get a FT job shortly after) and so all money that I was making went to the car payment and insurance. As it turns out, we needed it. It was the only transportation between us.
My mom was trying to pull together enough money to feed both of us. I was working as a substitute teacher at several schools in South Jersey but making $80-100 a day before taxes per diem was simply not enough. My mom was on disability and receiving support and services from the State of New Jersey. Her experience was very positive and so she suggested I look into it too.
So I went. A welfare office is the saddest and most infuriating place in the entire world. I walked in to see single mothers, children running around, pregnant bellies of girls 10 years my senior, old people, Spanish-speaking mothers, and wheelchairs filled with disabled veterans. All of us were looking for help. Desperation hangs in the air in these places. I went in and sat among them. Sure, I was working on my Master’s degree, but I couldn’t afford to feed myself. I needed help and so I was there.
They finally called my name and gave me this application packet that was about 60 pages long. The packet asks you everything you could ever think of. The application is embarrassing and invasive, but that’s what you get when you’re poor. Poor people can not afford privacy.
After you complete the packet, you are instructed to return to your seat and sit. I was there for three hours the first time and I walked out because they never called my name. In those three hours, I sat and watched people. I watched the women at the front desk disrespect the patrons. I saw the heavy weight on the shoulders of the caseworkers as they came to collect the faces associated with the names on their files. They weren’t happy and neither were the faces that met them. Three hours was enough waiting and enough witnessing for one day.
I went back the second time and had to fill out the application again and was eventually called back to the office. My case worker was a sweet woman. I don’t remember her name, but I explained my situation to her and she helped me. I’d found my voice long before this visit and so I was not prepared to let her make me feel inferior. After all, though I was broke, I had more education than she did. She had more job than me. More health insurance and could easily afford food. Chew on that.
I was given $165 in food stamps per month for three months. After three months, you have to subject yourself to the humiliation again to prove you’re still broke. Going to the grocery store with a food stamp card is painful. Really painful. I almost always used the self-check out lane because when you have a cashier, you have to tell them what method of payment you’re using so they can key it in. Being on welfare is one thing, verbalizing it at check out is quite another. Luckily, all you need to tell them is that you have a “Families First” card and omit “Food Stamp” all together.
The whole situation was humiliating, degrading, and mean-spirited. I had to pretend like I didn’t know that the way they were treating us [me and my fellow poor people] was not okay because I needed their help. All of my education, all of training, all of my theoretical understanding of the implications of race, class, and gender became practice in that welfare office. I have been dying to tell this story to someone other than my mother, but too ashamed to do so until now. Shame and poverty are mutually exclusive and rarely made public.
I was recently laid off and I may have to relive this situation if it gets bad. This time, however, I will be dealing with the unemployment office. I, like 24 million Americans, am out of work. I am not alone in my struggle, but it doesn’t make the struggle any easier to handle. Still, I am optimist. I made it through once, I can do it again. This time I’ll do it with grace, peace, and unconditional love from family and friends.The definition I am using for welfare is as follows: “governmental provision of economic assistance to persons in need”
If you need help feeding yourself or your family, please know that there are people who will help you. Below is a short list of places that will help. Remember: Meat is expensive and locally grown produce and goods are always cheaper.
Burlington County Food Pantries (NJ) – You can go to any of these places, show your ID and get a bag of food. No questions asked.
Angel Food Ministries (Nationwide) – This is an INCREDIBLE organization who offers food boxes to low-income people. For $30 you can buy a box of food that will feed two people. There are also a lot of additional boxes you can buy. A new addition to this incredible offering is an allergen free box. Great people. My mom and I used them a lot and made it through. They take food stamps, cash, checks, and Pay Pal.
Philabundance (Delaware Valley) – “Philabundance works to end hunger and malnutrition in the Delaware Valley by acquiring food and distributing it through organizations serving people in need.”
Catholic Charities – They have food banks throughout the country and some locations will even help with job placements. Bring ID and a smile.
Women Infants Children (WIC) – (Started by feminists, thankyouverymuch) WIC supports women with children by providing food vouchers for staples, nutritional support if breastfeeding or formula. Some locations also offer parenting classes.