Now that my kids are grown and gone, my Social Security check is enough to keep me from qualifying for government food benefits. But I remember well when we did qualify for a monthly EBT deposit, a whopping $22 — and that was before Congress cut SNAP benefits in November 2013. Like 70 percent of people receiving SNAP benefits, I couldn’t feed my family on that amount. But I remember the comments from middle-class people, the assumptions about me and my disability and what the poor should and shouldn’t be spending money on.
Anger toward those living below the poverty line seems to only be increasing. Maine and Missouri have proposed bills limiting residents’ food choices if they use SNAP. Missouri House Bill 813 would bar the state’s 930,000 food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy cookies, chips, soda, energy drinks, steak and seafood. (The legislature also implemented mandatory drug testing for TANF applicants in 2011.) If the bill becomes law, a Missourian can’t buy a can of tuna with an EBT card. Tortilla chips to go with salsa? Nope. Flank steak — tough, stringy and the only cut of beef I can afford — is off-limits, too. Who are these people, and what makes them think that what we eat is their business? And given that the average food stamp allotment in my state in 2013 came out to just $1.41 per person per meal, I wonder if they understand that recipients couldn’t buy lobster if they wanted to.
In America today, being poor is tantamount to a criminal offense, one that costs you a number of rights and untold dignities, including, apparently, the ability to determine what foods you can put on the dinner table. When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which, by the way, I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times. I have to reveal how much I pay to live where I live, the amount of my utility and medical bills, what car I own, even whether I have a plot to be buried in when I die. I have to update the local office any time my income changes, or if a family member moves in or out, and even when my college-age children come home for the summer.
When I used WIC to supplement the diets of myself and my two children, we were required to report to the Health Department quarterly for weight and wellness checks. My babies’ blood was taken to look for lead exposure. When my daughter’s test came back with sky-high lead levels, the Health Department came into my residence, crawled over the whole place, and took samples of windowsills, walls, soil, flooring and water, and found…nothing. Upon recheck, my daughter’s lead levels were perfectly normal and deemed a false positive.
What if they had had discovered metabolites consistent with drug exposure? Poppyseeds metabolize like opiates. Had I been living in Section 8 housing, that would have resulted in a search of my home for drugs, the loss of my home and quite probably the loss of my children.
Laws in several states that attempt to drug-test applicants for TANF (“welfare”) or SNAP (“food stamps”) operate on the presumption that all people living under the poverty line use drugs. Court challenges have ruled Florida’s and Michigan’s unconstitutional. In Utah, 4,730 people applied for TANF; 466 people were tested, turning up 12 positives. Turns out only a small minority of folks receiving benefits actually abuse drugs or alcohol.
Believe me, it’s a thrill to pee in a cup after relinquishing my purse, wallet, keys and shoes (I might be carrying a “clean” baggie of urine), just so I can get a Scheduled Drug sleeping medication.
There are many lives I would rather lead, and poverty is not my choice. As a child, I lived in a lovely family neighborhood in Connecticut, where we had horses and a barn, competed in horse shows, and went to Maine on vacation. Illness stole any dreams of emulating my upbringing, or of raising my children in the comfort that I had growing up.
My disability is invisible, which means I draw stares when I park in the blue-lined spots up front. I’ve even been challenged verbally: “You don’t look disabled.” The invisibility also means I hear opinions from people who don’t know me well — opinions on poor people. I don’t sound poor; I don’t look poor. I want to ask, “What does poor look like, anyway?” In public housing, 50 percent of the residents are elderly or disabled, or both. According to the Social Security Administration, as of 2013, the average retiree gets $1,294 per month to subsist on, and the average disabled person gets $1,146; both are around the monthly paycheck of a minimum-wage job-holder before taxes.
It’s as if middle-class and wealthy Americans think poor people live under the poverty line by choice, as if a sensible person would choose to subsist on so little. We’re barely getting by. Don’t tell us what to buy at the grocery store.