In March 2009, in the midst of the worst job crisis in at least a generation, Eva opened the last welfare check she will ever receive. She is one of a growing number of people in the United States who can’t find work in this recession but don’t qualify for government cash assistance, no matter how poor they are or how bad the economy gets.
Without the help of welfare, Eva doesn’t have enough money left at the end of each month to feed her daughters full meals. It is the first time in her life, she said, that she hasn’t had enough money for food.
Now, with no other source of income, Eva breaks the law, selling her food stamps to pay for the rent, phone bill, detergent and tampons.
On the first day of each month, when her food stamps arrive, she walks to the convenience store up the street, buys food for her family with her food stamp card and uses it to pay off the debt she accumulated the previous month after she ran out of money. She then trades in the remaining balance for cash. Although the bodega is more expensive than larger chain grocery stores nearby, she’s locked into shopping here because places like Wal-Mart won’t let her keep a tab–or exchange her food stamps for desperately needed cash.
You absolutely want to read the whole thing. It would, of course, be easy for people with internet access and enough food in the pantry to sit in judgement of someone who lost her job because she took her kid to the emergency room, and is taking care of her mother with cancer and her children. Easy, but cheap.
We know, intellectually, that if the only income you have is food stamps that you must be trading them for cash – no one gets free housing, childcare, detergent, toilet paper, birth control, medications, transportation. This is why I tend to think poorly of those exercises in living on a “food stamp budget” sometimes taken by the well meaning – they usually exempt themselves from the realities of the poor. They provide themselves with the maximum, which most households don’t get, and assume that they don’t have to consider the real questions of whether they could maintain qualifications and meet basic needs. Of course a person with a job and a car and supply of tampons and advil can get by on the food stamp maximum – that’s not really the point, is it?
We are teetering on a basic question, I think – what is government for? In the present situation, we don’t have the luxury of doing everything we’d like – of funding every project, of engaging in every kind of research or investing in every area of life that we’d like. We have to make choices. So we come to the question – as more and more citizens are impoverished and desperate, and we invest more and more money in propping up an economy that is still failing, still falling, what should governments do? What choices should we make? Is the mission of our society to preserve an economy at all costs? To preserve an imperialist enterprise? Or to preserve the people?
In the US, these questions are often framed in poor ways – it is implied that the only choices are socialism vs. neo-liberal capitalism. But of course, those aren’t the only choices – and things that serve us when we are growing don’t always serve us as we are falling.