Waiting for the 8th
She believed you could be poor without appearing poor, so Raphael Richmond, 41, attached her eyelash extensions, straightened her auburn wig and sprayed her neck with perfume as she reached for another cigarette. "For my nerves," she explained, even though doctors already had written eight prescriptions to help her combat the wears of stress. She blew smoke into the living room and waited until her eldest daughter, Tiara, 22, descended the stairs in new sneakers and a flat-brimmed baseball cap.
"I look okay?" Tiara asked.
"Fresh and proper," Raphael said, and then they left to stand in line for boxes of donated food and day-old bread.
This is the sixth in a series of stories by Washington Post staff writer Eli Saslow looking at the U.S. food stamps program.
The food stamp economy: A look at how food stamps drive the economy in a Rhode Island town.
The recruiter: A food stamp recruiter deals with wrenching choices.
Summer lunches: A new way to help hungry children: A bus turned bread truck
Hard work: A Florida congressman pushing to overhaul the food stamp system toils to win over a divided Congress.
Too much of too little: A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry.
It was Thursday, which meant giveaways at a place called Bread for the City. Fridays were free medical care at the clinic in Southeast Washington. Saturdays were the food pantry at Ambassador Baptist Church. The 1st of each month was a disability check, the 2nd was government cash assistance and the 8th was food stamps. "November FREEBIES," read a flier attached to their fridge, a listing of daily handouts that looked the same as October's freebies, and September's freebies, and the schedule of dependency that had helped sustain Raphael's family for three generations and counting.
Except this month had introduced a historic shift. The nation's food stamp program had just undergone its biggest cut in 50 years, the beginning of an attempt by Congress to dramatically shrink the government's fastest-growing entitlement program, which had tripled in cost during the past decade to almost $80 billion each year. Starting in November, more than 47 million Americans had experienced decreases in their monthly benefit, averaging about 7 percent. For the Richmonds, it was more. Not far across the Anacostia River from their house, Congress was already busy debating the size and ramifications of the next cut, likely to be included in the farm bill early next year.
It was a debate not only about financial reform but also about cultural transformation. In a country where 7 million people had been receiving food assistance for a decade or longer, the challenge for some in government was how to wean the next generation from a cycle of long-term dependency.
Raphael's challenge was both more pressing and more basic: Her monthly allotment of $290 in food assistance had been reduced to $246. She already had spent the entire balance on two carts of groceries at Save a Lot. There were 22 days left until the 8th.
"Mama's version of the hunger games," was how she sometimes explained the predicament to her six children, five of whom still lived with her, ranging in age from 11 to 22.
Photos: A long countdown to the 8th
Raphael Richmond and her six children receive their food stamps on the 8th of each month. Now, in the aftermath of a government cut, the Southeast Washington family has had to adjust.
Feeding a family on zero income always had required ingenuity; she took the lights out of their refrigerator to save money on the electric bill and locked snack foods in a plastic tub in her bedroom to ration them throughout the month. In September, when she first heard rumors of an impending cut, she had taken Tiara to sign up for a food stamp card of her own, thereby
increasing the family's take. Here was one surprising result of a government reduction: one new recipient added to the rolls. "A daughter looking out for her mother," was how Raphael had explained it, bragging to friends, but Tiara was less enthused. She chose not to carry the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card in her wallet, believing from personal experience that people who entered into the system tended to rely on it forever. "I'm not wanting to sign over my independence for good," she said.
Now, as they walked together up Good Hope Road toward the food bank, they took turns using a cellphone and passed a cigarette back and forth. "I used to apply for jobs at all these places," Tiara said, pointing out the convenience stores and check-cashing shops that lined the road. She also had tried to improve her job prospects by attending a health-care training program ("medical school," she called it) and a seminar on Microsoft Word ("a computer diploma"), and yet her last paid work had come five months earlier for a temp agency that had yet to pay her the $170 she was owed.
"I'm grown, and I don't own nothing," Tiara said, flicking away the cigarette. "It's pathetic."
"Pathetic?" Raphael said, rolling the word out of her mouth, considering it. "How you figure that?"
"Us going around, getting things, relying on people who treat us like nothing. I mean, I'm having to ask you for money we don't have."
"You ain't stealing. You ain't begging. We're just surviving, best we can."
Tiara flipped up the hood of her sweatshirt and walked ahead.
"Sur-viv-ing. You hear me?" Raphael called after her. "We're getting it while we can."
They walked into Bread for the City, where 40 people were crowded into the waiting room, and where the food line was a steady procession toward disappointment. "No more deer meat," read one sign. "Pick a holiday bag OR a regular bag. You cannot receive both," read the next. "Only one visit per month," read another. "Food is intended to last for three days," read the last notice, right by the counter, where Raphael handed over her number to a volunteer and waited for her bag of food.
"Thank you," she said when the bag came back three minutes later, filled with turkey, applesauce, yams and five cans of greens. Raphael turned away from the counter, doing the math in her head.
"So that's three days," she said to Tiara on their way out the door. "What are we supposed to do about the rest?"
Raphael Richmond prepares dinner as her daughter Dashanna, right, holds her 2-year-old cousin Jada. Raphael often ends up cooking not only for her own six children but also for a constellation of friends and relatives who have come to depend on her generosity.
For all of her life, Raphael had been counting down to the 8th. It was her most reliable event, a monthly promise that she would have enough to eat when her parents spent their cash on heroin, or when asbestos and carbon monoxide forced her family to move houses three times in a year, or when a series of five "gone again" men fathered her six children and provided a total of $20 in monthly child support. Her life had been a swinging pendulum of uncertainty - of bad health, eviction and the sudden deaths of loved ones. But the 8th had always come, and the federal money had always been deposited on time into her account. "The golden date," she called it.
Only once, when she was in her early 30s, had she lived without government assistance. She had moved her children into a two-bedroom apartment near the Southwest waterfront and signed a lease for $925, working as a home health aide during the day and as a prep cook at RFK Stadium at night. "Climbing the ladder," she said, but then came the reality of what that meant. The increase in her income disqualified her from food stamps, and buying food with cash left nothing to pay the gas bill, and cutting off the heat made the winter seem endless, and the combination of the cold house and the 60-hour workweeks aggravated her arthritis, damaged her heart and compelled her to quit work and apply for disability.
After nine months, she packed three duffel bags and took a bus to the homeless shelter. Her family spent two months in the shelter and two years in transitional housing and then received a voucher for a four-bedroom house in Anacostia with a leaky ceiling and a front-porch view of a highway underpass. The subsidized rent was $139 a month. She covered the shag carpeting with plastic mats and decorated the living-room walls with Japanese characters for peace, tranquility and good health.
"I feel like I'm having a heart attack," she said now, sitting in that living room, 17 days before the 8th arrived again.
"A real one or a stress one?" Tiara asked, her eyes still glued to a rap video on the cellphone. In the past two years, she had taken her mother to the emergency room for stress, panic attacks, leg numbness and anxiety.
"Maybe I'm just depressed," Raphael said. "If I could just have a good day. One day with no stresses."
"Why don't you cook?" Tiara suggested.
It was the activity that made Raphael happiest. Her grandmother had worked as a cook for President Jimmy Carter in the White House, and her mother had used most of her monthly food stamps to make Sunday dinners for her 14 children. One of Raphael's most vivid memories was of her only trip to a sushi restaurant, in downtown Washington, where the colors of the fish seemed "more like art than food." Now she opened her freezer and grabbed a 32-pack of quarter-pound hamburgers, bought at Save a Lot for $7.99.
Raphael obsessed over the future of the food stamp program in part because she herself had become a neighborhood safety net, regularly feeding a group of castoffs who called her "mom." There were her own children at home: ages 11, 13, 15, 17 and 22, plus a 25-year-old living in Maryland. Then there were the twin 2-year-olds whose mother - Raphael's sister - disappeared for such long stretches Raphael had started potty training; and one of her children's friends who was always avoiding her foster parents; and the cousin who stayed a week in the living room in exchange for the last $27 on her EBT card. "No judgment, just love," was Raphael's motto. She believed people who had the least were also the most likely to give. "We know what it's like to suffer," she said. "That's the problem with this craziness going on right now. How many of those people cutting stamps are using stamps to eat? They're trying to make their budget, and I'm trying to make mine, but I'm the one who has to keep stretching noodles and apologizing to my family."
She watched the burgers sizzle on the electric stove. The smell of meat filled the house. She put on an apron as Tiara turned up some music.
"Hey, Ma, let me take a video of you cooking," Tiara said, taking out the cellphone, hitting record.
"We're eating good," Raphael said, dicing an onion and tossing it in with the burgers.
"Mm-hmmm. Lady can cook," Tiara said.
"You know it, baby," Raphael said, smiling at the camera. "We're in the fat part of the month."
Tiara performs at Pure, a nightclub in downtown Washington. She was told that she could only perform one song, so she waited for three hours to rap for three minutes.
A week later, all 32 burgers gone, Tiara grabbed a package of instant noodles to make as her lunch for the third consecutive day. "I'm so bored of this," she said, mixing in vinegar, butter and black pepper. She sat down to eat and opened a newspaper to the job listings, compelled more by habit than ambition.
SNAP participation since 1969
Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as a percentage of U.S. population has mostly surged during and immediately after periods of economic recession and dropped thereafter. In the past decade, the participation rate has more than doubled.
Benefits per person
Average monthly benefits have also risen steadily since the inception of SNAP, hovering around $100 per person for three decades. Only since the onset of the Great Recession has the benefit risen to more than $130 per person.
NOTE: Adjusted for inflation. SOURCES: Agricultural Department, National Bureau of Economic Research, Census Bureau
The ads made it sound so easy to get a job in the budding economic recovery of 2013 - "Hiring now!" one read; "Start tomorrow!" promised another - but recent experience made Tiara believe she had better odds "playing lotto," she said. The unemployment rate in Ward 8 was 24 percent, triple the national average, and there were an estimated 13 job seekers for every open position. She had been offered a security job, but first the company wanted $500 to train her. Marriott had openings at a new hotel, but the application required her to submit a background check online. So she had gone to the police station and paid $9 for a form showing that she had no criminal record. And then enrolled with a nonprofit group that gave out free computers and scanners, since the ones at the nearby library always seemed to be broken. And then learned that she could only pick up the computer in Rockville, four bus transfers and a Metro ride away.
The latest advice from a caseworker assigned to help with her job search was to "make a list of options" and "stay prayerful," but lately Tiara sounded more like resigned in the songs she wrote under the rap moniker Madame T. "This is the life I was dealt with," she wrote in one.
"I'm sick of these job counselors," she said, pushing aside the classifieds. "What do they know? They have a job. They go home. They go on vacation."
"When God is ready for you to have certain things, you are going to have it," Raphael said.
"I bet it was better in the days of Martin Luther King, for real," Tiara said. "At least back then people were angry. They were doing something. How do they expect us to live? We got no jobs, no opportunities, and now they're cutting our benefits? What's Obama doing, for real? How can you be a good president when half of your own city is like this? Yo, Mr. President! We're here, right under your nose, living, struggling, going nowhere."
For 22 years, Tiara had successfully avoided what she referred to as the "ghetto woman traps." She had arrived at adulthood single and childless, a talented musician with a high school diploma and a clean record - "a miracle," Raphael called her. And yet none of those successes had earned her anything like stability, and she had little in her life that qualified as support. Her mother, fearing the next trip to the emergency room, had made her the default guardian for four younger siblings. Her absentee father, a Puerto Rican, had given her nothing but smooth brown skin, soft dreadlocks and, with some reluctance a few years earlier, a phone number where he could be reached in case of emergencies. Believing her life consisted of one long emergency, Tiara had called him the next day, only to learn the number was fake.
At the moment, the only "options" she could list for her caseworker were the new EBT card with her name on it and a food training class hosted by DC Central Kitchen. The class was free, but it was also three months of training that didn't guarantee a job. The class flier had been sitting on the kitchen table for weeks. "Must be able to lift 50 pounds," it read. Must stand for hours. Must work in a noisy environment.
"You remember your cousin Anthony?" Raphael asked one day. "He took that class, couldn't fry an egg, and he came out making $13 an hour cooking for the embassies."
"Who cares about embassies?" Tiara said.
"Thirteen an hour. You care about that?"
"No matter how many certificates I get, nobody's hiring. What's the point? I'm tired of trying for these things."
"You can stop trying if you want," Raphael said. "But that won't make things any easier."
Anthony, 15, held the family’s place in line at a church food bank. He had no hat, so he wore the bag over his ears to stay warm. More than 250 people had come to the food bank, and most of the food was gone before Anthony reached the front of the line.
The alarm sounded one morning in the last week of November at 5:15, and Raphael stumbled throughout the dark and stepped over three relatives sharing an air mattress in the living room. She opened the door to the basement, where her children were sleeping, and yelled down the stairs. "Let's go, y'all!" she called. "It's time to get in line." Nobody answered, so she shouted again. "Come on! I need this!" A third time. "Get up and execute the damn game!"
Of all the stereotypes about urban poverty, the one Raphael resented most was the notion that a dependent life is a lazy life. Their food supply was down to four boxes of mac-and-cheese, three loaves of white bread, juice, rice and a few dozen canned goods. "Lazy would be getting in a car, turning on the heat, going to the grocery store and picking out some bacon," she said. Instead, she headed outside in 25-degree weather to walk a mile with three of her children in hooded sweatshirts and windbreakers, some of the best winter clothing they owned, so they could wait as long as it took for whatever food they were given.
"You know that real people are still sleeping now, right?" said her son Tiere, 17, who had come to help his mother carry home her grocery bags. "This is too damn early."
They turned a corner toward the church and saw that, in fact, they had come too late. The pantry wouldn't open for another hour, but already the line stretched two blocks, a collection of 250 people who had brought their own grocery carts, shopping bags and lawn chairs. Single mothers held their babies and paced to stay warm. A disabled man inched forward in his motorized scooter. Off in the distance, closer to the church, Tiara could see another line, just as long as hers. "What's that?" she asked the man standing in front of her, and he explained that because the pantry was especially busy before the holidays it had decided to divide the wait between two lines. Theirs was only for tickets, which would then earn them placement in the next line for food.
"This is crazy," Tiara said, leaning against a nearby car. "We should be leaving."
"It is what it is, T," Raphael said. "At least we're here. We're doing it. We're trying."
They inched forward for the next few hours, taking turns warming up in a nearby convenience store. Tiere lost sensation in his toes, so he went home to bed and his youngest brother, Anthony, 15, replaced him in line. Tiara's fingers trembled, so she tried to warm them by holding her mother's lit cigarette. They traded tips with people nearby about other food giveaways later in the day, the economy of Southeast Washington at the end of a month: D.C. Council member Marion Barry was handing out turkeys at 1 p.m. and Grace Memorial had vegetables at 3. One elderly woman stepped out of line to ask a pantry supervisor if she could use the church bathroom. "I'm sorry," the supervisor said, explaining that the bathrooms were off-limits because someone had vandalized them the week before. "All I can ask is please don't come here to wait at 4 or 5 in the morning," the supervisor said. "That's too many hours to be standing in line outside. It's getting cold. It's dangerous."
But even as she spoke, the people who had arrived at 4 or 5 began walking out of the pantry with full grocery carts of cakes, bread, Coke, cereal, hot dogs and collard greens. "High-end product," Raphael said, whistling as they passed. She wrapped her arm around Tiara to keep warm and tucked her chin under the collar of her coat.
An hour later, as Raphael neared the front of the line, a pantry volunteer made an announcement. "Plenty of bread, onions and sweet potatoes," he said, before explaining they had only 17 packages of nonperishable food left to give. Tiara counted the people in line. "We're 26th," she said, kicking the curb. "Count again," Raphael said. "Twenty-sixth," Tiara said again. "Been waiting out here for nothing."
Tiara walked after the pantry volunteer and gently tugged at his coat. "Can we go to the front if my mom's on disability?" she asked.
"Sorry," he said.
"If she's a regular?"
"Sorry," he said again.
Video: D.C. church helps bridge the food gap
A middle-age man cut in front of Anthony in line, and Raphael stamped her foot. "No. Hell no!" she shouted. "That's a baby, and you a grown-ass man." The man held up his hand to apologize and stepped back to his original spot. "What you need to do is get yourself a job," Raphael said, still fuming as she reached the front of the line and a volunteer ushered her into the emptying pantry.
The first table had only hot-dog buns. "Don't pout," Raphael told her children. "Be grateful for what God gives you."
The second was covered with onions. "Some countries got nothing," Raphael said. "They drink dirty water."
The third table was covered with a mound of sweet potatoes, and Raphael filled a 20-pound bag with the biggest ones she could find. A volunteer recognized her and brought out six pastries, frosted bear claws from a secret stash inside the church. "Sorry we don't have more," the volunteer said.
"That's okay," Raphael said. "This is more than we had before."
They walked back down Good Hope Road, passing a check-cashing store, a memorial for a gunshot victim and a mural with a quote from Frederick Douglass. "If there is no struggle, there is no progress," the quote read. It was the kind of walk that made them feel progressively better about the 20 pounds of sweet potatoes in their bag. "Mash 'em, boil 'em, fry 'em, pie 'em," Raphael said, imagining the dishes she could prepare.
A few blocks from their house, they walked through a park where seven people were sleeping on benches. One of them, a woman wrapped in a blanket, stretched out her hand. "Please," she said. "Can you help?"
"We all hurting," Tiara said. But she stopped and reached into their bag from the pantry. "Here," she said, and she handed over one of the pastries.
Dasha, 14, cleans her bedroom while her sister, Dashanna, who recently turned 12, tries to entertain twin 2-year-olds Jada and Jaden with a rattle. The twins, Raphael's niece and nephew, had been staying at the house for most of the month. “Everybody calls me ‘Mom,’ ” Raphael says, because she has become the safety net for several friends and relatives who have nowhere else to go.
One week left until the 8th, and now each scrounge through their emptied refrigerator was a reminder of what they didn't have and all the reasons they didn't have it. They weren't so much hungry as bored, anxious, tired, depressed. Tiere, normally a reliable student who talked about wanting to attend college, skipped school the Monday after Thanksgiving and stayed in the basement, dodging the truancy officer. Raphael turned off every light in the house to save money. Then, when her children kept turning them back on, she unscrewed the light bulbs. She skipped breakfasts and subsisted on coffee. Her blood sugar spiked, her feet went numb and she started walking around the house with a cane. Her temper flared. Her generosity wore thin.
"All you people got to go. Now," Raphael said, with six days left until the 8th, kicking out most of her relatives except for her children.
"I need to get out of this place before I flip, for real," Tiara said, with five days left. "Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte - I'm talking about fleeing, anywhere."
"What are we going to do?" said Raphael, with four days left.
"I'm getting serious about signing up for that cooking class," Tiara said, with three days.
"I can't live like this," Raphael said, with two days.
"I feel like a damn failure," Tiara said, on the last day.
"Thank you, Jesus!" Raphael said on the morning of the 8th, back in the aisles of Save a Lot to purchase her family's groceries for the month, pushing two carts that creaked under the weight of 40 pounds of meat, 12 boxes of cereal, 11 packages of cheese and 75 bottles of juice. She set her items on the conveyer belt and handed the cashier her EBT card. "Take the whole balance off there," she said. And then, a minute later, she also handed over Tiara's card. "Take the whole balance, too," she said.
"Okay. You're cashed out," the cashier said, handing back both cards as the total hit $420. Raphael stared at the 35 items still on the conveyer belt, the ones she would have been able to afford before the government cuts. Ground beef. Tilapia. Snickers. Yogurt. "I guess just put these back," she told the cashier, and then, as she bagged up her items, she had an idea.
Her own food stamps no longer seemed like enough for the family, and neither did Tiara's, but there was another option. Her eldest son had yet to enroll in the food stamp program. He had no income. She was sure he would qualify. His likely benefit would be about $160 each month.
"I'm taking him to get signed up first thing tomorrow morning," Raphael said, already imagining what she would be able to buy with the extra EBT card when the 8th came again.
Congress could come up with its solutions, but so could she.
"With three, we should be good," she said as she carried her food into the house.