By Jennifer Schaller
Rushing to place my groceries on the conveyor belt before my two-year-old screamed in line, a store clerk, about to weigh my produce, asked, “Are these WIC?” My incredulous eyebrows raised, I answered “NO” and kept piling my groceries before her. I live in New Mexico, where we rank number one in childhood hunger for the entire nation.
More than once at more than one grocery store, clerks have asked whether I pay for my groceries with government assistance. WIC stands for Women, Infants, and Children; it’s a federally funded program that gives pregnant mothers and children assistance with buying healthy food. This time my particular cashier answered my no with a shocked, “No?” Annoyed, I responded, “NO,” making it quite clear with my tone that I wanted to jump over the counter and punch her in the face.
If she had asked me one more time, I would have let her have it: a tirade about how I worked hard, went to college, got a degree, two in fact, and then busted my butt gaining a professional job. However, a tirade would not only vent my anger at this poor woman, but it would also let out the fiery rage I feel every time someone places me neatly in a box. And letting an unsuspecting woman, however ignorant she was, really have it would make me feel like crap. I strive to be humble—call it a byproduct of my single-parent upraising. Sure, maybe I was on welfare as a child, but that doesn’t mean I can never move into a higher economic class using only my wits, stamina, and some college loans.
The cashiers are always strangers, so I assume they base their judgment of my financial need on my appearance. I’m a dark skinned Latina. There are other criteria that may make others believe I am in need of government assistance: I have more than one child, two to be exact, I shop in the middle of the day on weekdays because my work schedule allows this (not because I’m unemployed), and I live in a poor state. In 2012, 53 percent of young children in New Mexico’s lived in single-parent households. I suppose when a person adds all this up, I could be placed neatly into a box—the WIC mom box. What does a WIC mom look like? Apparently, she looks like me. She may look like you.
The irony is that the cashiers who ask me this question are always Latina. During a different grocery shopping trip, when I handed a clerk my credit card, in a Spanish accent thicker than my grandmother’s, she asked, “EBT?” EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer, and it’s a debit card for welfare. I had the urge to say “College?” in a snarky tone, but I didn’t. Spewing anger at other people’s stereotypes will not change anything. Hopefully my answer of “No” is enough to make someone think differently. No is what I had to say to my grandmother when she told me at the age of twenty-five to start having kids before she died. I wasn’t ready to be shoved inside that box of motherhood, not at twenty-five. I wanted to go to grad school.
While 30 percent of New Mexico children are considered poor, and 13 percent more live in extreme poverty, it’s not unheard of for a minority woman to attend college and obtain gainful employment, even if she has two small kids. I know government assistance is a direly needed entity for many children and families in my beautiful state. When I was a child, my mom would go without food the fourth week of every month until the next allotment of welfare came, so my brother and I could eat. I learned from her experience. Nearly thirty years later, I feel I’m still climbing out of someone else’s box—brown, black, or white; WIC mom or non-WIC mom.
Jennifer Schaller is a teacher who lives in Albuquerque with her husband and two children. She usually has a pile of papers to grade and a small child’s nose to wipe, but every so often she ekes out time for writing, some of which has appeared in Brain, Child, Georgetown Review, Sonora Review, and This American Life.