By EBK Riley
Last week, I spent the last three dollars and sixty-six cents of our nutritional assistance, also known as food stamps. We have been in the program for a year, after many weeks of spending hours on hold for multiple telephone interviews, which qualified us for a no-expense-paid trip to the DES office. My husband and I, along with our two little girls, waited five and a half hours before we were asked for I.D., then photographed, and fingerprinted, so that we could solemnly swear we were poor enough to receive family nutritional assistance and federally subsidized health insurance for the girls. Not that we had been singled out for such treatment. We waited those hours in a large holding pen-like waiting room, crowded with other similarly eligible Arizonans. Then, until last month, we received a couple hundred dollars a month loaded on a debit card, which could only be used for food. It had a distinctive Arizona sunset skyline on the front that was instantly recognizable in the store, so there could be no mistake about the person using it and how they got it. But, it helped to keep us from starving, so in retrospect, I guess the wait (and the way I felt when I used the card) was worth it.
When I started at my current job, which is part-time, and at the state’s minimum wage, we submitted the changes in our income. We were found to be $1.71 over the eligibility limit for assistance. When the form letter came in the mail, that was that. No more assistance. And so, I spent my last $3.66 on milk and bread and put the card away in my underwear drawer in case we ever needed it. Because really, I never thought I would need it again. Until I did, but only because my children didn’t have enough to eat.
During all the years I worked, I never thought I would need monetary assistance buying food. But when I realized we couldn’t manage without help, I told myself that all those work hours also included those mysterious “FICA” deductions that seemed to take such a bite out of our paychecks. I told myself that I had “paid in” for a long time, and now for a while, I was going to have to use those benefits … kind of like paying for insurance and then having a medical bill paid.
I just wrote that like I didn’t wrestle with myself and feel inadequate and guilty and shamefully over-educated and foolish about every transaction I made with that desert sunset debit card. Clearly, I still can’t quite get over being that worn-out woman with the hungry kids hanging off the side of the grocery cart, making sure we weren’t buying anything that looked like a treat, feeling like I needed to somehow justify my very existence.
To say that we lived frugally is an understatement. We had recently been experiencing the working graduate student life, then, the working graduate student life with little children, so we were used to a relatively low standard of living. This last year though, keeping food on the table had been our priority and other things, like haircuts and clothing and shoes and doctor’s visits for grown-ups, fell completely off the radar.
We have survived because of the help we’ve received from family and friends. A lot. Of. Help. If you bought us dinner or groceries, or gave us a ride, or brought us a pizza, or gave things to the girls, or made sure we had gifts at the holidays or took us for coffee, a bagel, and a much needed laugh this year, you know who you are. I love you all the more for that help and for giving that help without making it obvious that needing help meant we were kinda dumb. I really love you for that last part. And for giving me the opportunity to practice this grace around the girls.
We teach our kids to help, to share, to give, because we want them to be good people. And we are always noodging them to say thank you, but we might not get the opportunity to teach them to really be grateful, because it is sometimes so hard to set a good example. It has been one of the hardest things this year. I am sincerely thankful for everything my children received that I could not have possibly afforded, but still, I sometimes have a real pang that I am not the one giving the gifts.
I’m looking forward to a time when I will be able to offer help again, and offer it the way it was offered to us, casually and openly, and with no strings attached. Our friends and family have been such wonderful examples, and I’ve learned from them. I have learned to say thank you, and really mean it, then let it go when someone says “You’re Welcome.” Those are such lovely words.
EBK Riley is a mother, wife, and writer who tries to apply her philosophy degree (and dry sense of humor) to the joys and sorrows of everyday life. She has recently started to blog at http://ordinarygoodfortune.blogspot.com/.
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