How do I come to peace with my membership in a food assistance program?

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Most people in the country are feeling the strain of the downturn in the economy, but we as a household are feeling it on both ends. My partner and I are in luxury industries, so when the masses don’t have fun money to spend, our businesses decline. We recently made the decision to fill out the application for SNAP — a food assistance program — and are waiting for our response.

As a socialist and a humanist I have always believed our social welfare programs were deeply necessary and underfunded, but now, for the first time actually needing them I find myself feeling…awkward. Ashamed. I could really use some words of wisdom here, guys.

Comments on How do I come to peace with my membership in a food assistance program?

  1. I had a similar feeling when I used Medicaid for prenatal care. I felt like I should have been able to handle my own shit or something. The truth is, though, that no one gets through life without assistance. Part of handling your shit is asking for help when you need it. Don’t be ashamed of that.

  2. Hey, don’t feel guilty. Are you taking advantage of the system? No. You’re using it for its intended purpose. Times are hard, and that’s what those programs are there for. If anything, think of it as a first-hand experience in assistance programs. You’re an expert now!

    Hopefully, in the near future, you and your partner won’t need assistance anymore, and every dollar you pay into the system is one that you know will go to help someone who is in the position you were in not too long ago and needs help. And doesn’t that make you feel good?

  3. My family just recently started recieving WIC which provides formula and baby food for our son, honestly the first time i went to the grocery store to get it i felt so awkward that i cried in the store {dramatic i know} but honestly after a few months of getting the food and seeing that i have an easier time providing healthy food for my son i’ve come to peace with the fact that this isn’t a forever thing. It’s a hard thing to transistion into and that’s ok that guilt or awkwardness you may feel should let you know that you’re doing it because you need it not because you’re taking advantage of the programs you’re apart of.

  4. Your judgements of yourself for needing this assistance might just be exposing some unspoken judgements you had of people on those programs before you needed it, so it’d be best to work through your feelings and focus instead on how you’ll contribute to society with a positive outlook and optimism instead of your consumer value.

  5. Ok, I work for WIC and I was a WIC mom, still would be if I qualified. Try to keep in mind that the system is here to be used. You work, you pay taxes, you use the system when you need it. It’s karma.

    I know it is hard as hell to get over the pride issue, but most people are not going to judge you. Nearly everyone is facing hardships of some sort and can relate. Those that don’t relate probably won’t say anything anyways.

    I don’t have any actual tips for overcoming all of this except to keep your head up and make check out as quick as possible.

  6. SNAP is a great program that is there for folks when they fall on hard times. It’s also an economic stimulator. In addition to providing money so you can buy foods, it also benefits your local economy. For every $1 in SNAP that comes into a community, an additional $1.79 in other spending is generated. This helps keep businesses afloat and people employed in your community. Good for you for applying!

  7. Oh boy, I’ve been there. After my parents divorced, my family was on welfare for a while until we moved in with my aunt (honestly, I couldn’t tell you which was less pleasant).

    I was also on it for a little while after moving out on my own. Times are hard right now. If you’re able so save any money now that you’re on food stamps (or getting food from a pantry), do so. Save as much as you can. Look up interesting recipes to use the foods in, and try to keep your spirits up!

    If the guilt is coming from outside sources, don’t worry. Nobody but you has to know you’re getting assistance. Many people out there have never truly struggled and don’t understand the point of welfare programs. To be honest, I pity them. They have no idea how good they truly have it, no matter how hard they insist they do. When things pick up again, you’ll know exactly how good you have it. Until then, you have a system to help out. Have a good day, start feeling better! Take a walk outside. You have nothing to feel bad about.

  8. I’ve been lucky enough to have never needed to be on an assistance program – and believe me, it was just pure dumb luck. You and I and everyone reading this pay our taxes to help people who haven’t been as lucky – and so when we aren’t as lucky, WE can get that help too.

    It’s often easier to give help than it is to receive it. However, by not accepting help, you stagnate the flow. You’ve been able to help people in the past through your taxes (as well as other means). Give others the privilege of helping you when you need it. Allow the flow to continue.

  9. It’s totally normal to feel that way. We associate such a stigma with poverty in this country, and it’s not fair that even though you’re not exploiting the system, our societal norms have told you that you should feel ashamed for needing some assistance.

    It may help to re-frame your situation. Think if it more like insurance. You’ve paid taxes for a long time now, just like you would pay your insurance bill every month. Now you’re simply using the service you’ve been paying for all this time. We don’t feel guilty when we use our insurance to help us pay for things; this should be no different.

    Hope this helps. 🙂

  10. Reading this will help.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/21/AR2010112104440.html I found it profoundly moving.

    Years ago I was a WIC mom. I had to travel across the city on my lunch hour once a month, changing buses, to verify my eligibility. I was supposed to show up with my son, but the head of this particular office gave me a dispensation because I was coming from work and didn’t have any vacation time to use for the visit. Still, I had to sneak out of work and sneak back in because it invariably took more than an hour… travel and then waiting in the long lines at the WIC office. I can still feel the shame, heat rising in my face, as I presented my vouchers at the grocery store and the suspicious glances of the clerks. I always felt the need to “explain”. It sounds weird now, but my need to explain was directly born of the fact that I was a white girl living in a black neighborhood during a very divisive time. The hostility I felt from the other shoppers and even the grocery store staff was palatable. There was overt anger about the reduction in benefits and the negative publicity connected to “welfare” programs due to Reagan and Bush being all over the media creating the “welfare queen” myth. It made people very covetous of their benefits, while also heightening the negative connotations. You literally couldn’t win for losing.

    All that said, the benefits are there for a reason. The are desperately needed by an underrepresented segment of our population. Don’t feel shame. Don’t grateful that you had the opportunity to contribute to the program through your own hard work and taxes. That you need to “cash in” now is no different than receiving unemployment benefits or social security or even retirement. You paid in, or someone in your family did, and now when you need it, it’s there for you.

  11. You pay your taxes, right? I mean, programs like this are what taxes are for. As a tax-paying individual, you have every right to to use to use the programs and amenities your money pays for. Like roads, or state parks, or public education. I realize that the whole pride thing can be difficult, but try to think of food assistance as a road, figuratively speaking.

  12. Hey I felt the same way about going on unemployment. I didn’t want to be one of “those people” who milk the system instead of doing their fair share. My pastor looked at me and goes “If you’re still on unemployment two years from now, we’ll talk. Otherwise, go fill out your claim.”. So, you know, if you’re still on it in two years, maybe step back and look at your life, look at your choices. Right now, don’t beat yourself up.

  13. Almost 5 months ago I lost my job. Although my husband works and makes pretty good money, it wasn’t enough to cover our expenses, and I applied for ans was approved for Unemployment. I too felt guilt, shame, and just plain Weird. The way I tend to handle it is a) like many others here, remind myself that while I was gainfully employed I paid into the system, so I kind of viewed it as just getting back what I’ve already paid in, b) Keeping a sense of humor. Sometimes that involves a good degree of black humor and sometimes self-effacing humor, and maybe that isn’t always healthy – but I was taught “If you’re not laughing, you’re going to be crying,” so I try to opt for the former when I can.

    Hang in there. Another way I try to keep my chin up – and this may work for you too – is by reminding myself that this is only a temporary setback. I’m lucky to have a husband who is super-supportive and friends who understand that money is super-tight at present, so I have what matters.

    • I’ve been on unemployment for the last two months as well. And strangely? I haven’t felt much shame. The boy has a decent job and our rent is not much, but winter is coming and fuel oil is hideously expensive in our un-insulated rental house. Plus, I’m in school and trying not to take out more loans. The money I get from unemployment pays for my gas and groceries (have been much more frugal lately) and necessities like shampoo and garbage bags. I occasionally treat myself to a trip to the thrift store for books or a nice wool sweater. But mainly I’ve been trying not to spend any money at all.

      So don’t feel so bad. You’re not alone! I do feel you on the SNAP benefits, though. I’m thankful that my benefits card for unemployment can be used exactly like a regular credit card. Otherwise I would be struggling with the same guilt others feel, I’m sure.

      Other countries don’t stigmatize welfare benefits as much as we do in the U.S. I think it’s because we’re so “up by your bootstraps” that we’re not SUPPOSED to be dependent on anyone else. But remember – it’s not you, it’s the economy! And if anyone makes a comment, tell them you’d be glad of a job if they’d like to give you one. Especially if you’re a highly trained in a specific field like me (museums).

  14. Like many of the other comments above, there’s a huge difference between using an assistance program to help you through a tough patch and using it because it’s easy. Being in a luxury industry is definitely a tough place to be right now and I’d like to think that no one would feel that you’re abusing the system. I think it’s a responsible decision, even if it’s hard on one’s own pride.

  15. My family is in the same place right now and no it’s not a great feeling, but there is a point where you step back and see that you have tried and need help. Personally I never felt worse than I did sitting in the assistance office waiting to see if we could save our house and feed our family and I cried, then I got angry, and my anger is now motivation to fix our lives with every single resource that is available.

  16. I don’t have much experience of this myself, but maybe try to think of it as more personal, more of a community helping you out type thing. Gratitude to a society who has this kind of safety net might help make it easier (gratitude always seems to help me feel pride in myself still, and not feel totally helpless, because I know to ask for help and appreciate it), and hopefully you can get a slight warm-fuzzy feeling knowing that everyone paying taxes and voting for these things is trying to look out for you, just like you were looking out for others earlier. It’s like a community thing, in my mind. It’s not like you’re being pitied – you’re just being helped out, like when someone has a baby and others in the community offer to make dinner for a couple nights, because you may have done the same thing for them. Now if only EVERYONE in this society saw it that way….

  17. To the extent that your budget and transportation allow, use your SNAP money at local businesses and farmers’ markets (if that’s possible in your community). That way you’re supporting your neighbors’ hard work to sustain their own livelihoods.

    Also, vow to use your experience with financial support for good. So many people don’t understand who needs assistance and why. Break their stereotypes, advocate for system improvements, volunteer, help those around you access benefits they need, and remember those “less fortunate” when you have time or money to share down the road. I work in social services, and I can tell you that many of my most passionate volunteers are here because they’ve experienced times of need and now are able to give back. Their first-hand experience makes them better able to serve others. Those are the voices we need to hear in this time of balancing broken government budgets on the backs of those who are already suffering most.

  18. Don’t feel guilty at all.

    I know where you’re coming from though. I had to sign up for food stamps last month when I lost my job. At first, I felt horrible doing so… I mean, I have a B.A. degree in management and I’m experienced with a diverse background of assets. So I kept thinking that I should have a job… or at least be able to get one soon. Unfortunately, that never happened. The competition is so tough right now, that it’s hard for anyone to gets jobs, let alone those of us with degrees.

    But, being that I’m not even getting unemployment (tis an ongoing battle between my former employer and myself), I needed some way to eat. It’s scary looking into your fridge at 25 years old and not seeing any food for tomorrow. So, I bit my lip and signed up for it.

    Thing is (which I had to realize) is that by using it, I’m not abusing the system and definitely not the trashy/abusing type. Just use it what it’s intended for and when business picks back up, stop using it. Like personally, I’m using it while I continue daily to look for work. When I find a job again, I’ll stop it.

    Yeah, it really does suck and I still get embarrassed when I go food shopping, but it’s necessary. Also, remember that it’s not set in stone. We wont be on food stamps forever. It’s just there to help us get by until the economy picks up.

  19. On a slightly different note, I’ve been on and off (and back on) snap benefits and use this time to put as much money as I can in savings. The period of time when you make too much money to qualify, but don’t yet make enough money to cover all your expenses is the hardest. I remember getting a raise which disqualifed me, but didn’t leave me with enough money to get the same amount of food that I had been getting with food stamps. It’s tough, but think of the experience that you can pass on to others once you’ve been there and moved off again. Too many judgements come on those who use assistance and never even make a plan to get off. If you make a plan for how this fits in your life now and how you’ll get back off again, you’ll feel much better about using it.

    Good luck.

    • Along these lines, try to buy items that “hold”, such as dry oatmeal, big bags of rice, frozen meats, dry and canned beans, etc. Occasionally there’s a glitch in the system, and having those things on hand to tide you over while you straighten out red tape really helps.

      • In my adult life, with lots of chronic medical issues resulting in lots of unemployed spells without unemployment benefits, I have been on “food stamps”/SNAP benefits off and on a few times.

        Right now, I go to food banks as well as getting SNAP benefits, and I have found that food banks are great for stocking up on the dry goods, less so for produce (although great for onions and potatoes ;). One in our area is GREAT for picking up bread, and we’re stocked up on dry goods right now, so we’ve skipped a few food bank visits lately except to pick up bread, and use the SNAP benefits for fresh produce and seafood. Meat comes from a variety of sources, including my uncle who hunts and stocks me up with venison, the food banks, and grocery stores (especially discount grocery stores) with SNAP benefits.

        I had one guy get in my face a few years ago because I was using my SNAP benefits to buy a bunch of lobster tails. I made him feel like absolute crap when I pointed out that I was getting them half off because the lobsters were sick and the grocery store had to cook them before they were inedible, and that the $30 I was spending on lobster tails and cheese and potatoes and chives would feed our entire family the celebratory dinner for someone’s birthday instead of paying $150 at Red Lobster which is what we used to do when we had money. I asked him if he preferred I spent my money on Doritos and Coca-Cola and ramen noodles, and still went to Red Lobster for dinner, or if I got fresh lobster tails, potatoes, and whole wheat pasta and cooked at home. He got really red in the face and shut his mouth.

        I still fight with the pride issue, because I’m a white girl who comes from a middle-class background, and my mother raised me to believe that these types of assistance programs were for folks who were disabled or too stupid (and thus disabled) to work to support themselves and their families. I still get funny looks sometimes when I pay with my SNAP card, because I was taught from an early age how to shop sales, get good deals at the thrift store, and receive gifts graciously (and have gained quite a bit of weight due to a medical problem so I had to create a whole new wardrobe)–so most of my clothes look brand new or at least are not well-worn, but all cost less than $3 per item, or were a gift from more affluent family members. I don’t “look” like someone who should be on government assistance.

        But when the recent census data shows that 1 in 6 Americans live below the poverty line, and most of those people are new to that level of income (meaning they probably bought their nice things when they weren’t dirt poor), how many of us really do “look” poor these days?

        This is how I look at it: The programs have lots to hoops one must traverse to keep out the casual abusers of the system, and lots of qualifications one must meet that often are shown to exclude people who really do need help. If you jump through all those hoops and meet the qualifications, you’re in bad shape, so don’t beat yourself up about accepting the help.

        • Yeah, it really pisses me off when people get up in arms about people buying “overly nice” food on their SNAP benefits. I mean, first off, you get the same amount each month whether you spend it on Doritos and Coke, ramen and frozen peas, or lobster and organic vegetables; and secondly, while I can vaguely see the argument about not wanting people on public assistance to buy junk food, getting upset that they’re buying nice food is just ridiculous classism– like if you can’t afford to buy it with your own money, you don’t deserve to eat foods without pesticides and hormones and PCBs.

          • I only recently got off of SNAP.

            Its a catch 22. I got treated funny for my junk purchases AND my organic, fresh purchases.

            I would go to ALDI for the bulk of my purchases, no problems there.

            I would go to the co-op we bought into ($80 for a lifetime!) and get things I couldn’t/wouldn’t get at aldi. Good ice cream, good yogurt, and lots of nice fresh produce and the cheaper meats. I would sometimes get funny looks for using my SNAP card. The worst anyones ever said though was “find everything you NEEDED?” (like, the emphasis was on needed, making it sound like they were questioning whether I needed everything in my cart, which honestly probably not because baked goods, but mind your own damn business!)

            The last store I always go to is Wegmans. Those are mostly short trips. Sometimes just for fun with my friends or husband, only getting one necessity if it’s needed. For simplicity I would pay for say, the milk AND the sushi, energy drink and cookies all with my card. That is what got me the dirtiest looks.

            Be prepared for dirty looks. Be prepared to not care because they don’t know how else you spent you SNAP on other shopping trips.

  20. Also, look up what programs you can use your access card benefits for. In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie museums offer a little known benefit of getting 4 people in for only $1 with an access card (obviously, one of the 4 people has to be the person on the card). This has been a great thing for us to be able to go to the science museum or history museum at times when we otherwise couldn’t have afforded any family activies.

  21. It’s okay and you’re not alone. I work for a local 211 call service and we receive a LOT of calls from families whose income has changed over the last several months. I try to help our callers acknowledge that if they’ve ever worked and paid taxes, to think of the temporary benefit as a kickback. It’s supposed to supplement your food allowance and it’s there when you need it. It’s hard to set aside your pride or think differently of yourself/your family, but at the end of the day, you’ll know that there will be food on the table.

  22. I’m on food assistance where I live. We jumped through all the hoops and submitted all of our work papers. I work three jobs and still I don’t make enough to cover groceries. Honestly, when I got our card in the mail, I took it to the store, and using it gave me the greatest sense of relief.

    There’s a pretty big stigma passed around about those who use food assistance. Some people say it’s abused, and sure, it does get abused, just as any social system will be. But I’m not one of those people. I like proving cynics wrong by buying healthier stuff with my food assistance than I might have bought without it.

    Don’t feel guilty. We get by with a little help from our friends, right?

  23. We were on food stamps for a while last yet. My fiance was veeerry reluctant because he felt the same way. Embarrassed. Like he wasn’t providing for his family. However, when people come over and see our empty fridges and his parents noticed how often we were eating with them, he decided that food stamps were a good thing. The thing looks just like a debit card. If you use the self check outs, not a soul will even know and you will be providing solid nutrition for your family. What could be more responsible?

  24. I attended high school in one of the richest counties in the country, and my mom was low-income. When she realized we qualified for free lunches, she signed us up, and I was a little excited, since I generally had had to pack lunch before and couldn’t buy it like my friends. The first day I used my free lunch benefits, the automated computer screen read $0.00 and FREE LUNCH when the lunch lady scanned my ID. I was mortified. I thought it was only OK if none of my friends knew. They didn’t even really notice until a few days later, and as I turned red, one of them said, “Whoa, you don’t have to pay? That’s awesome!” and they made me feel much better.
    Just to echo what everyone else has said: don’t be ashamed; the system is there for you when you need it, and you won’t always need it. Using it now will just make you empathize with people in your situation in the future, and if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s empathy.

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