When I was a child my parents used food stamps to help feed me and I’m not ashamed. I’m not ashamed because it wasn’t my fault. I’m not ashamed because it wasn’t my parents’ fault. More importantly, I’m not ashamed because no one should be ashamed that at some point in their life they had to rely on the help of others to get by.
Third grade was a transformative year for me. The Detroit Tigers won the 1984 World Series, the Cosby Show was the water fountain conversation at my elementary school and my dad got hurt at work one night and in an instant, my family went from comfortable and working class to struggling to make ends meet.
My dad has always worked hard to put food on the table and provide for his family. When I was born, he was a proud Firestone employee and things were good for his young family. Then the plant closed and life got harder. Always the fighter, my dad found work delivering pizzas at night for minimum wage. He got a break when a local steel plant was hiring and things looked brighter. That is until nearly 10,000 pounds of steel came crashing down on my dad and altered our lives.
I remember my mom, holding back tears, telling my sisters and me that our dad was hurt, he was going to be okay and we didn’t have to worry about anything. I was worried. But I shouldn’t have been as worried as I was. My mom worked hard to make sure we ate and kept our house. My dad focused on healing and going back to college so that he could later become a teacher. But before that happened, my parents had to deal with an employer that cared more about profits than taking care of someone that was hurt on the job. My dad was fired when he wasn’t physically able to return to work.
After exhausting all other options, my mom and dad did something that they probably thought they would never have to do – they applied for food stamps. I think that day was one of the hardest days of my dad’s life. It was harder to ask for help than it was to go through surgeries and physical therapy. But he did it because there was no other way to put food on the table. That’s just what you do when you’ve got mouths to feed.
I learned first-hand why it was so hard to accept assistance a few months later while standing in line to buy groceries with my mom. In the 1980s, food stamps were large, colorful reminders of the poverty you were enduring. When my mom took her food stamps out of her purse to pay, a woman in line behind us began to sigh very loudly and whispered under her breath something about my mom being lazy. Yes, this woman was calling my mom – the woman who was working two low paying jobs, taking care of my dad’s health, raising three kids and doing what she could to help take care of her sick dad – lazy.
In that moment I learned two lessons. First, I learned that too many people make assumptions about others and often shame poor people for the simple act of being poor. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgement. Then I learned the second lesson – fighting back works.
I later found out that this wasn’t the first time my mom dealt with people like this. It was, however, the first time one of her kids was with her and that is probably why she finally spoke up. My mom turned to the woman and asked her if she had a problem. The woman said, “No I don’t have a problem, you do because you think it’s alright to use my tax dollars to feed your kid.” At that moment, my mom responded the only way she knew how. She told the woman to do things to herself that I’m still not sure are humanly possible. Then she turned away from the woman, who was now standing still and silent with the color having left her face, and smiled at the cashier and then grabbed me around the shoulders and said, “never be ashamed of who you are or how you got there.”
I never saw that woman again, but I’ve seen her in the nasty tweets that are directed at people struggling to afford basic necessities such as water, I’ve seen her in our state’s requirement that welfare recipients pee in a cup in an effort to shame them for attempting to improve their lives and I’ve seen her in Paul Ryan’s budgets. The woman and other extremists like her do this to make hard-working people feel ashamed.
I haven’t been ashamed to this day. The truth is that my parents worked hard, I deserved to eat and people that get off by talking down to poor people are the real people in need of help.