I never thought we’d be a family on food stamps.
We lived on a tree-lined street in a small co-op apartment. My husband had a good job, and our modest lifestyle allowed me to stay home with our five-year-old son. We were a well-educated, happy, young family. But financial troubles can befall anyone.
When my husband lost his job and couldn’t find work for months after, we qualified for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. (We also qualified for Medicaid, which we desperately needed, since I was newly pregnant with our second son.)
When we got the news of his layoff, we hadn’t even told anyone about the pregnancy yet. I had that feeling of uncertainty that many pregnant mothers have during the first trimester, but now an extra layer of vulnerability was added. I felt a sense of doom, guilt, and inadequacy.
Our older son wasn’t in school full-time yet, and we couldn’t afford child care. I started training as a postpartum doula to earn some extra cash, but I was still the primary caretaker for our son. It was difficult to schedule many doula clients while my husband worked as a substitute teacher and interviewed for full-time jobs.
Nothing he or I could earn was enough, and our savings account was quickly depleting. So on a cold February morning, after we dropped our son at pre-K, we made the trek to the food stamps office.
Getting our SNAP benefit cards was a grueling, time-consuming process. We waited in a seemingly endless line. Finally, it was our turn. My husband and I began to present our bank statements, utility bills, a letter verifying that he’d lost his job. The employee behind the Plexiglas window shushed us and handed me a printed ticket with a number on it. “Take your number, go to the elevators, and wait upstairs,” she said.
Upstairs, no one could answer any questions. Everyone just kept telling us to wait. Almost two hours later, we began to worry about getting back in time to pick up our son from school. After what felt like an eternity, we were led into a small office where they snapped our photos and gave us our new IDs.
My husband had already been to the food stamps office the week before. He had found the instructions online and brought in all the documents that seemed applicable to our situation, but they told him he needed to bring a few more things — and both of us needed to appear in person.
We were told that this sort of thing was typical: They always ask for more documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, bank statements, paystubs, and letters from former employers. And it does no good to send by fax or email, or call on the phone. Calls and emails are not returned, and sooner or later you have to go back down to the office to make sure the documents were received.
This time commitment is a significant hardship for someone who’s trying to hold down a job or look for work.
While we were desperate for my husband to find work, I don’t know how we would have managed it if he wasn’t able to take a few days off from substitute teaching. Applying for food stamps was like a full-time job, and not everyone has the flexibility to put in the hours.
I was thankful for the benefits we were getting, but the amount allotted to us was not enough to cover our grocery bill (families receive different amounts of grocery money based on family size and earnings). Between my pregnancy and our five-year-old’s voracious appetite, we had trouble cutting down on food spending. Our SNAP benefits ended up covering only about half of our groceries.
I looked into WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits as way to supplement, but the supermarket where I usually shopped did not accept WIC — in fact, it was hard for me to find many nearby supermarkets that did. It seemed like a waste of time and gas to go a different store. So although I did get some WIC coupons for our family, I never ended up using them.
Looking back, I would say that the bulk of our struggles were emotional: There was a dark, foreboding cloud over our lives that year. As each month passed with my husband out of work, my stress level rose (not a good thing for a pregnant woman). We had faith that my husband would find work, but we didn’t know how long it would take. Not knowing took its toll. I wondered when our savings would run out or whether we would need to sell our co-op.
And yet, to some extent, I don’t know what it’s like to really struggle. We were not living in poverty. Although our earnings were next to nothing for that year, we had modest savings — which most Americans don’t have. We had credit cards. We got help from our families. We knew we would never go hungry, that would we have what we needed for ourselves and both our children.
If anything else, our year of on food stamps taught me just how lucky — and privileged — we are.
My husband got a job. Our second son was born, and we eventually sold our co-op and began renting a lovely duplex with a backyard for our kids to traipse through. We are still picking up the pieces of our financial demise, and I hope that someday we will start saving again so that we can buy a house for our family.
But we are among the fortunate ones. I’m grateful for the government assistance we received, but it only made me wish there were more programs for poor families, with better funding and less red tape.
According to 2013 census figures, 46.5 million people in America are living in poverty, and 16.1 million of them are children. Of those families who do receive food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, and other benefits — even those living much humbler lives than we were — these resources are not enough. (This 2013 study, for example, found that SNAP enrollees had no improvement in terms of food security or food quality compared to other lower income households who did not receive SNAP benefits.) It is unacceptable that millions of children go to bed at night without a good meal or a warm bed to sleep in.
Although I never feared anything like this for my children, I was close enough to the realities of poverty to understand what our system currently lacks — and to feel strongly that something must be done. Besides voting for politicians who take poverty seriously, and supporting local and national programs that help impoverished families, I believe we all have a responsibility to help families in need. That change is in our hands.