Thursday, February 23, 2012

On the Dole

So, I got food stamps the other day.  Well, in Minnesota, the benefit is actually called "food support," but you get the idea.  My experience applying and being approved wasn't terribly difficult or exciting (save for the fight that nearly broke out in the waiting area), but rather simple and, dare I say, almost pleasant, given the circumstances.  The folks I talked to and showed various proofs of things to were polite, friendly, and helpful.  I had to prove that I'm unemployed, and show proof of my last paycheck, as well as my lease to prove that I have to pay what now feels like an obscene amount for rent.  They told me I qualified for expedited support, since I haven't received any income this month (my last paycheck was January 20, and the only other money I received was tax returns, which they do not count as income).  Turns out I qualify for $200 a month, which made me just about pee in shock.  That's more money than I think I've ever spent on food for myself, ever.

Since this is my first time using such a benefit as an adult, I obviously have some thoughts about it.  I went to the website where you can check your balance and check to see which nearby stores accept EBT, and saw that -- ZOMG -- Whole Foods accepts EBT.  Then my roommate Googled "Whole Foods EBT," and the first result was the most vile, racist pile of crap I've ever read about people who have the nerve to use their EBT card for anything other than SPAM and Wonder Bread.  I mean, how dare these people want to eat decent food, or even treat themselves once in a while?  They should be eating roadkill, goddammit!  Save the steak and lobster for the privileged folk who have earned* it!

Conversely, there are people who complain instead about the low quality of the food people buy with their EBT cards, like using it at gas stations to buy Doritos and frozen pizzas.  How dare they? people say.  I don't give my hard-earned money to them so that they can live off junk food!  People have such an attachment to their tax dollars when they see individuals using them in ways that they don't specifically approve of, but a significantly smaller number seem anywhere near as angry with the way that governmental institutions use their tax dollars.  Personally, while I'd like everyone to make healthy decisions about food, I'd prefer my neighbor use "my" tax dollars on Doritos than for the government to use "my" tax dollars on hiring private contractors to make weapons to be used in a war that I am morally opposed to.

It's hard to know what to do, if you're concerned with pleasing the Hard-Working Americans[tm] who are funding your eating habits, as half seem to think that good, high-quality food should be reserved only for those purchasing their food with money from a paycheck, while others think you should only be eating the most nutritionally-sound foods available.

Why wouldn't someone want people to eat healthy, high-quality food?  I hear a lot about how people who are poor are fat, and therefore must not need food support, because they eat too much.  Or how people choose to eat crappy food, or how so many people choose to be unhealthy, and if they'd only eat fresh broccoli and tofu every day, they might get better and be healthy.  So... why is it that you want someone like me to be both unhealthy and unhappy?  Because I was fired from my job?  Because I'm unemployed, in general?  Because I'm using the social safety net that the last 14 years of my tax dollars have been paying into?  Because... why?  Because you think I deserve to eat crappy, unhealthy food?  Because you think I don't deserve good food?  Let's break this down a bit.  What is it that you think I do or do not deserve?  And why?  Because I don't have the money available to buy it on my own?  Why do you think that money is the thing that should qualify one for a healthy diet?  Why is money the thing that you think should qualify someone for a reasonably pleasant daily existence that doesn't require starving, begging, or shame?

I don't consider one's accumulation of green pieces of paper to be indicative of one's worthiness to eat and live in a comfortable way.  How better to judge such things (even though I think "judging" is a wildly inappropriate way to describe this) isn't something I'm going to get into here, but finding oneself in a situation where they are suddenly and unexpectedly without income does not mean that one does not deserve to live.  And that, "you don't deserve to live," is exactly what saying something akin to "you should not be living off me to get food" means for many, if not most, people in this situation.

What makes a lot of these folks so upset seems to be the fact that they, themselves, have a job, and they still cannot afford so-called "luxury" food items that recipients of food support seemingly can.

I've been there, in that place where I don't make enough money to shop at fancy healthy food stores, but I still don't qualify for food support.  And it sucks, because you want to be able to eat decent food, but you only have your own income to use, and you just flat-out can't afford what you would eat if you had more money.  You know what else I had when I was in that position?  A job; a place to live that, at the very least, I could afford to maintain because of said job; a vehicle that was both insured and working; a MetroTransit pass that I had as a benefit from my job that allowed me unlimited use of any public transit in the metro area for a payroll deduction that was so small I didn't even notice it was gone; the occasional ability to go out with friends and socialize at concerts, bars, wherever; fucking money.  The only thing that I, as a freshly-on-the-dole person have that you don't have is taxpayer-subsidized, designated money for groceries.  If I don't have a job by April, I'll be evicted.  I don't have a car, which is my own choice, because I live in the middle of the city, hate driving, and have had that wonderful MetroPass for years... until now.  But I sure as hell couldn't afford a car now if I wanted to, and if I did have a car, it wouldn't be insured anymore, because I can't afford it.  I'm a smoker, which I realize is idiotic, but I can't afford cigarettes.  I love some occasional wine and good craft beers, but I don't have an income, let alone a disposable one.  My phone bill is thankfully being paid by my soon-to-be ex-husband, with whom I share a plan, whose phone bill I paid while I was employed and he was not.  But if it weren't for that specific situation -- if we weren't getting along, if we didn't share a plan, if he hadn't just gotten a job and back pay from UI -- I wouldn't even have a phone to use to answer potential calls from prospective employers.  

The point is, just because I can afford some groceries doesn't mean I am getting some awesome free ride, getting to eat gourmet food on your dime, and living the high life.  Think about what actually qualifying for benefits like this actually means.  Had I still been employed at US Bank, I wouldn't qualify, but I would know that I could pay rent, go out once in a while, buy my stupid cigarettes, and maybe even afford a new book once in a while.  And I could cut down on those other things in order to afford gourmet food, if it were that important to me.  

I used my EBT card to go grocery shopping on Saturday.  I bought eggs, cheese, olive oil, fake meat, a ton of frozen vegetables, peanut butter, bread, tortillas, beans, pasta, tomato sauce, and a bunch of other, similarly boring-but-reasonably-healthy things.  I spent $135, and it's going to last me a long time.  I couldn't help but consider what Hard-Working Americans might think of my purchases.  I figured the Morningstar Farms fake chicken and fake ground beef were too luxurious, as they were only once-in-a-while purchases when I was buying food with money from my own paychecks.  The cage-free, organic eggs at $3.50 a carton would probably be similarly scoffed at.  But, you know, I don't care.  And I honestly look forward to the possibility of debating this with some ass in the checkout line, should they be so bold as to loudly judge my purchases.

Incidentally, Minnesota Public Radio ran a story today about how only 65% of Minnesotans who are eligible for food stamps actually receive them.  The related Facebook thread is (so far) mostly supportive, but there are, of course, the folks who would rather see people die of hunger rather than lazily live off of their neighbors -- and those who can't seem to agree on whether folks using EBT cards should only buy healthy foods, or only buy garbage.

The best part, though, is that yesterday, I needed some butter, and just went down the street to my local market and got some, because I could.  That was nice.

*"Earned," in this context, is such a heavy statement.  How does one "earn" the right to eat foods they really like, and foods that are nutritious and healthy?  By getting a paycheck from a company?  Because I think I "earned" my right to use this EBT card by being hungry and unable to afford food.  And also because I have been unemployed for a cumulative total of about one year in the 14 years since I got my first job, when I was 14, and obviously paid taxes that go to fund these programs that whole time.  These programs exist to help people who need them, and if you're opposed to helping people who need help, then I think you're an asshole, and more than likely have an ignorant and misinformed perspective on life, people, and the world.