Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ants on Food Stamps

My house is about to be taken. The bank will put locks on it, they will post 24 hour guards dressed in chain mail armour, and I will be lead to the stocks for citizens to fling rotten tomatoes at.

Like most people, I never thought that this would happen to me. Not because I am wealthier or smarter than other people, or because I had some secret that others didn't. I just assumed that something really catastrophic had to happen to lose my home. I thought people who were foreclosed on must have missed a step or be too busy looking for a kidney transplant or robotic arm to bother with the frustration of trying to keep their home.

I don't want to say that I looked down on people who lost their home, because I don't think that was the case. I certainly didn't make a moral kind of judgement against them, for which I'm thankful. No, the problem was that I just didn't know how it felt. Some things are only understood when you have stood under them.

I have now stood under the weight of renting my home, trying to sell it, trying a short sale, and now the only thing left is for it to be taken away.

Truth be told, I'll be relieved to see it go. It is a nice home and we were happy to have it. But after losing a job and quickly rearranging our life plans, the importance of moving ahead is more important than keeping a home.

Sure, there is the issue of honor. I said I'd pay for it, and it doesn't feel good to back out of that promise. It would be really great to pay it back someday. But after the paper shuffling and bowing and scraping and abuse we've taken from the mortgage company, I'm not as concerned as I was in the beginning. Perhaps that shocks you. It might not shock you if you knew the details. Don't worry, I'm not sharing them. Just imagine you are trying to call the President and ask how he feels about ice cream. That's the difficulty of getting our company 
to talk to you...for six months...until you miss your first payment.

They told us from the start they were just basically waiting the lawful amount of time until they could seize the property. I didn't know that stuff really happened. I thought there was nearly always a way out. But there wasn't.

I've told you I'm mostly ok with it, and that is the truth. We have new income now, a new life before us. We are focusing on preparing for our here and now, and as we can, our future.
The hard part is the social stigma. Nobody has to know, but that isn't practical. People ask why I live with my parents. Fair question, as I'm over 30 and have a family of my own. We get asked when we'll be looking for a place of our own, and would we like to see a great house that so-and-so has just listed?

I don't explain it to almost anybody. I just say we are trying to figure things out. This is the truth, if it isn't The Whole Truth.

The stigma still hits, though. It comes through the creditors that call me every day. It comes from the posts on Facebook about the scum of society that want government health care. It comes from the newspaper articles about food stamp users who dare to buy organic milk. It comes from overheard cafe conversations in which people scoff at poor people who are audacious enough to carry a cell phone. Today it came from a medical accountant who needed information.

She wanted to know why I didn't receive the bills in the spring. I didn't have an answer, though I don't have any of those bills. When I asked what we could do, today, to fix the situation, she was reluctant to give up her abuse. When I started to give her my insurance card information, she stopped me. "Let me guess.' she said. "You have TennCare."
What was I to say? I do indeed have that free, government insurance. She continued through her note taking, only sounding slightly human and humane when I thanked her for her time in helping me. She let me know that my credit would probably still suffer. I was tempted to inform her that it mattered not a whit in the ocean of my losing my home. Instead I told her to have a nice day.

The next related call got me an earful of 'not dragging my feet' on the process. When I asked a question, I was interrupted with the live voice stating, 'this is an attempt to collect a debt'. Then, she told me to have a nice day and hung up. After all the time and the case numbers and client numbers and explaining to one employee and then another and hearing some stranger verbally abuse me, I was disconnected. I only listened to this woman judge my bookkeeping skills because I have to resolve the issue. I was rewarded with her sneer and a dead line.

I read several articles last week about food stamps and those who use them. A U.S. Representative made headlines when he noted the 'total fraud' of some fit-looking couple purchasing groceries on a EBT card. This article linked to another, and another, and by the end I was angry and further humiliated.

The polls on food stamps indicate that I am to buy no candy, no soda, no lobster, no steak, nothing organic, nothing too expensive, and nothing that is bad for my children. Additionally, I am to wear nothing too shabby or too nice when I purchase these magical items, I am to act contrite for my actions that led to my need, and I am also to make sure that I don't have a car or a phone, because if I can pay for those things, I can certainly pay for my own, 'healthy but not too healthy, cheap but not junk food', food.
There were many things I found interesting in these articles. More people think I should eat plastic chemical crap than 'nice' food. Many customers and cashiers admit to heavily judging those using 'that card', as our government official put it. A surprising number of fellow food stamp users share that they have been addressed for using an EBT card.
Comments about how someone could dare to buy a birthday cake with food stamps... Comments about how with the nice purse they carried, they should be ashamed to use food stamps... Comments about how they are too fat and therefore don't need food, or too thin and are therefore healthier than should be allowed...

There aren't answers to be found, not in the midst of so many differing opinions.

Do I buy candy on my food stamp card? I do. When my kids' teachers ask for help bringing in items for a party or event, I quickly sign up for anything food related. This is how I can contribute. A bag of Twix mini bars means my kid doesn't have to hear that we can't afford to participate in the activity.

Do I buy steak? So far, no. But I have bought really nice salmon. It was the only birthday present I could afford for my dad. I made him dinner, and I bought the gift with my EBT card. A birthday meal meant I could still honor someone important to me.

I mostly use my card for milk, bread, eggs, the normal stuff. If restrictions were placed on it, it would be fine. I don't mind the powers that be trying to make America a healthier place by limiting access to sweets. The real rub comes when I hear the comments. I haven't yet had them at the checkout, though I brace for them every time. Facebook is the absolute worst. Horror stories are shared weekly about someone who saw another person buy crab legs with their food stamps. The nerve! 'I don't work my butt off to feed lazy people better food than I can afford." Ouch.

I had to go to an office downtown and wait for four hours for an appointment with a social worker. I had to find a place for my kids to go, because I didn't want to explain what I was doing. It is dirty in that office, and it is full of screaming babies and people who speak little English. The bathroom looks like a hundred middle school males have used it and then died in the mess. Police officers sit nearby, reminding you not to talk on a phone or cause any trouble.

I was led back to a maze of cubicles and asked personal questions about my finances and job, the status of my marriage, if I was abused. After the questions and more paperwork, a few phone calls by my social worker (I now had a social worker!) I sat, unable to keep from crying...after all that, I got a literal red stamp of approval. I passed the poverty test. I was eligible for the whole amount. I wasn't just poor. My state government determined that my family of five lived below the poverty line. We could get food and medical insurance. I was relieved, if still ashamed. Shame hurts, but so does hunger.

If you'd seen me that day, you would have seen a nice outfit. While I've never been rich, I've been lucky enough to buy clothes for myself. I look for sales, and I can splurge now and again. I still have my clothes. I still have my nice purse from when my mom helped me buy one. I have a really nice borrowed car, from a friend who is trying to help us out. I had a really nice borrowed phone, from my dad who wanted to help out. I didn't look below the poverty line. I still don't look that way today.
The world is changing. It always does, much to our chagrin and more to our hope. It won't always be the way it is. That means that things can get worse, or better. It also means that things aren't always going to be the way you expect. Someone driving a Mercedes might be on food stamps. Someone in a nice suit might be nearly homeless.

We are recovering from an economical collapse. We are also experiencing a huge social turnover. Like it or not, the tide turns. My money washed out to sea, but I still have expensive stainless steel bowls to cook my food stamp meals in.

My house is nearly out of my possession. I had to prove that I couldn't pay for it. I eat off the government's dime. I had to prove that I couldnt pay to feed my family. Here's something I'm not proud of: I passed the test. It doesn't feel good, standing under the weight of these situations. It would be hard enough on its own. My shame was nearly complete when I whispered to the social worker that I had 100 dollars in my bank account, no assets, no car, and no idea when more money was coming in. She had to ask me to repeat it.

The shame that was added when I walked out the door was different, however. Inside that dirty office, everyone shared something. We all had some need, and we could prove that the need was legitimate. Maybe the world disagrees, but according to the guidelines set forth by those in charge, we met the requirements. The lady that sat next to me had her nails done. Maybe in another life, I'd balk at how she could afford to get her nails done. Now I assume someone gave her a much needed gift, or her sister is a nail technician, or maybe she's in beauty school and trying to make a better life for herself than sitting in this downtown office. I'm happy she got her nails done. Hopefully she'll assume my nice purse is a remnant of yesteryear, when such a purchase wasn't out of the question.

Outside these walls, another story gets told. I need to get a job, though I'm not supposed to have a car or a phone. I've been under the impression that this is because I'm supposed to 'know my place'. I'm at the bottom, naturally. I'm socially aware enough to know that I'm at the bottom. The real issue however is that other people need to know where I'm located. If I carry my purse and drive this car, nobody will know I'm on government assistance unless they see 'that card'. They won't know I'm not one of them, and they'll feel lied to.

Some say that I shouldn't buy soda on my card, because maybe I don't know that it isn't good for me and my kids. I respect these kinds of comments, as they are often housed in kindness, even if delivered the wrong way. I agree, and I don't often buy soda. But more people said us foodstampers shouldn't eat steak, because that's too nice a thing to buy. They aren't concerned for my health. They don't want me to have something that is above my station. Steak is for the better people, and I don't deserve it.

Surprisingly but becoming rapidly less so, Christians and the conservatives are the cruelest. There's the above issues of knowing my place and having pride, but then it is wrapped in Jesus paper and it gets really, really ugly. I should know better, being the daughter, granddaughter, and wife of preachers. I should know better than to take that money for food. God helps those that help themselves, right? Doesn't that mean I need to sell my plasma and live on the street before I would dare to take a handout from the wicked government? Let's not forget the Proverbs, which obviously I didn't take to heart enough or I wouldn't be in this mess.

I've concluded that the most conservative of conservative Christians believe in Evolution. They won't hear tell of it related to primates, but they uphold the theory more than any other group I know.

Survival of the fittest is the concept that a species grows stronger and exhibits new characteristics to adapt to change. Those that don't keep up get left behind to die. The species then can slough off the offending weak spots and move towards a glorious future in which nobody has blemishes. I've heard some people joke that if we stop funding the food stamp program, the poorest would die and then we wouldn't have to take care of them anymore. I've heard this from 'God-fearing believers'.

Poverty might exist in Africa, but Americans should know better. This is the land of the free, and the home of the brave. We have no need for those who aren't hitting the marks of beauty, prosperity, and drive. If you feel called to be a teacher, but you don't make enough to support your family, you should switch careers. It is no longer about who or what God wants you to be, it is about making enough money to be self- sufficient. Pride is more important than any call you might have. Forget sculpture or anything our society doesn't prize. You will find a way to keep up with this herd or we will trample you. We might even do so out of pity.

While writing this, an ant crawled on my table. It had a large crumb on its head. No doubt it was looking for a way to get home with the spoils of war. It struck me as ironic. Many of us would squish the ant for daring to come near a human. Some might blow it away, not caring that it had life and it had worked hard to carry food for its consumption. It is of no consequence to a human whether an ant lives or dies. The ant doesn't matter. The ant isn't important to us, so therefore has no importance at all.

How selfish and how conceited we are. The ant is a different species. We are stronger, we are better.

Yes, we believe in Evolution of our own kind. We rise to higher and higher eschelons of society, looking down the beanstalk at the ants on the ground below. The higher we get the smaller they seem. If they don't make it, that's not something to cry over. If the ant doesn't make it home with the crumb, it is of little consequence. After all, the crumb came from my meal, and wasn't really hers after all. 


Catherine Weir said...

I think everyone experiences financial ups and downs (in no way belittling). People tend not to speak of all the lows and to avoid accentuating those times. Most people are not fortunate enough to consistently have a steady flow of money. I'm sure they exist, but it's not typical. You're not alone in all those feelings you are going through. I went through them too. I did not lose my house but I lost my business. It takes a while to fully recover and it's hard to even notice when things are slightly better. Things will get better and slowly but surely you'll feel more confident and stable. Just remember that you're not alone in this experience- almost everyone has had or will have a horrible financial life changing experience. Just remind yourself that things will change for the better and this does not define you.

Catherine Weir said...

I think everyone experiences financial ups and downs (in no way belittling). People tend not to speak of all the lows and to avoid accentuating those times. Most people are not fortunate enough to consistently have a steady flow of money. I'm sure they exist, but it's not typical. You're not alone in all those feelings you are going through. I went through them too. I did not lose my house but I lost my business. It takes a while to fully recover and it's hard to even notice when things are slightly better. Things will get better and slowly but surely you'll feel more confident and stable. Just remember that you're not alone in this experience- almost everyone has had or will have a horrible financial life changing experience. Just remind yourself that things will change for the better and this does not define you.

Jennifer said...

You're pretty amazing. I know you are going to help so many people by sharing this. It's a good reminder for those who have forgotten, and an important lesson for those who choose to look the other way.

Jennifer said...

Tiffany, this was really amazing. I read this earlier this morning, and I have had a very difficult time knowing how to respond. Reading this, I felt so much empathy for the pain and shame you have felt through so many careless words. Thank you for reminding people that there are precious faces that are behind the cold comments that they make.

MaryStevens said...

We know this so well. We cannot socialize because it often involves $$ so many consider us stuck-up. We actually tried to qualify for same but we are delighted to say we were 5 dollars above said poverty level. That 5 dollars should feed a family of 5 plus those who seem to find their way here. No sports, no clubs and public school are the only options for our kids (they haven't gotten all of their supplies yet.) Our kids get birthday parties only during milestones; although son has not had his from the July birthday. We, mom and dad do not exchange birthday, anniversary or christmas gifts. When we are not in church, we are out of gas. We have not had a vacation(travel,) since our youngest was crawling. I truly consider us blessed to have our home, for we would have no friends/family. to go to. That payment we have missed, but try not to. I sold most of my jewelry for us to go watch my mother in law die. This, all while my longsuffering husband works two jobs. What a difference $5.00 makes!! I am thankful for your blog and pray God's blessing on your family. I am so thankful for a job, and hopeful for a better future we can all enjoy. None of us truly know what hides in the shadows of those we know. This makes it all the more important to be graceful and gracious; loving ,giving, understanding - I hope to be better at that, when I fail so miserably, each day.