We walked into the WIC office, the boy and I, for the last time a few weeks ago. His fifth birthday is approaching, which means we’ll no longer qualify for the government nutrition program.
It’s the end of an era that began when I was pregnant with him. It was a decision I’d resisted with our first child. When she was born, we were still making just enough money to not qualify for it, but a year-and-a-half later, things had changed. My husband was a student with a part-time job only a high-schooler could love, and I was at home with a toddler and a baby on the way.
The clinic where we confirmed the pregnancy gave us the paperwork we needed for WIC, which was right down the hall, in the same building, and there was almost no decision to it. I am not proud that we needed it or that our poverty was such that our son’s birth was covered by insurance we didn’t pay for. But I’m so very grateful that we had the chance to walk in the shoes of the American poor.
Most days, I hated it. Hated that we had to buy the exact item of food on the check or risk setting off the alarm at the cash register or calling over a manager to fix it or heaven forbid, having to hold up the line while we went back to the aisle for the correct item. You’d think a college-educated woman would be able to perform these tasks faultlessly. But I couldn’t and didn’t and it opened my eyes to my sheltered world of privilege.
No, I’ve never been rich, but I’ve certainly never been poor either. Not really. Even in the days when we had no money to fall back on, we had family to help us. Family by relation and family by church. A support system not everyone who is poor has.
And I know you might be thinking if I hated it so much, why did we take it? Or why didn’t I use my college education to get a job? I’m not sure any of our reasons will satisfy your questions. I’ve learned along the way that no matter how much you argue, how much you try to prove to people that you are not like the stereotypes, some people will believe whatever they want and you only accomplish making your own blood boil.
This is one of the many things I’ve learned from our circumstantial poverty. That those who haven’t walked that path might never understand the whys of it. Some days, I still don’t understand the whys.
All I know is that I see the world differently because of the years–yes, years–we’ve spent receiving government assistance. (I know some of you may find that offensive. If we’re friends and you want to talk about it, I’m all for a civil discussion. I’ve lost “friends” because of this, though, and I’d prefer not to lose any more.)
I know about the limited choices for “free” healthcare and how you don’t always get the best. How the clinic is staffed by doctors in training and sometimes they can’t find the baby’s heartbeat and you panic because you need that assurance. How sometimes they treat you like you’re less of a person because you’re at the free clinic. How sometimes you have to pick a doctor whose office is 30 minutes or more from where you live because there is so much need and so few providers willing to open their doors to those with state-funded insurance. I know the shame of feeling like you’ve been labeled as “lazy” or “pitiful” or “fraud” when your insurance provider is announced at the doctor’s office.
And the grocery store? Don’t get me started on the grocery store. I always liked shopping for our family’s meals, but that was before government assistance. Before we held up the line with our WIC checks and store policies that require the cashier to get approval from a manager on the other side of the store for every single check we’re trying to use. Before I looked at the items in my cart through the eyes of someone not on government assistance, wondering which purchases they would condemn as frivolous or unnecessary. I never thought it was possible to be hated by people you don’t even know, but I feel that every time someone comments on an article about welfare or food stamps on Facebook. It makes me want to scream “You don’t know what it’s like!” But that doesn’t solve anything either because I didn’t know what it was like.
I didn’t know there was a day the grocery stores dread because it’s the day food stamps are dispersed and people flock to the stores to buy food. I didn’t know people so quickly passed judgment on other people just because they’re poor. I didn’t know there were families just like ours–families with full-time jobs and young kids–who still couldn’t make ends meet.
It’s the worst feeling, you know, when you grow up in middle-class homes, when you have two undergraduate and one graduate degree between the two of you, and you still require help. It’s the worst because you feel like a failure. Like it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like you’re doing something wrong.
But it’s also the best because now you know what you didn’t know. Now you know it’s okay to ask for help. To get help. To do what you have to in order to take care of your family, even if you face criticism and hatred. You know what the paperwork is like. You know that it’s possible to stretch your monthly allowance, no matter how much it is. You know what shame feels like. And you see it on the faces of people you otherwise might dismiss.
Receiving government assistance has made me a more compassionate person. I’m glad we’re nearing the end of it because it means we have hope that things will be better. For some, the hope never comes. There seems to be no way out.
So, I wonder what it looks like to give people hope in their circumstances. What can I offer because of my experiences to those who are where I have been?
I’m not sure I have answers, but I’m glad I’m asking the questions.
Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance you never thought you’d be in? How did it turn out?
Are you able to see the good even in the bad?