Shaming my Food Stamps: EBT and SSDI
I grew up a white, middle-class, cisgendered, femme bisexual. These are the labels and privilege that I am willing to claim. When I reached 33 and went on SSDI, I went on food stamps. The transformation from Daddy’s Girl who just had to get another temp job to actual psychotic starving schizophrenic who had to take anti-anxiety medication to take out the trash was a process but has landed here. With me, today. Taking a handful of pills so that I can be brave enough to go use my EBT.
It takes waiting for the Ativan to take effect so that it can be possible for me to go to the Vons. My wife and I usually divide our shopping between discount markets, going to the Vons for only the few little fancy things. Tonight I am so anxious that I am only focused on getting the food, getting out. I drive to the Vons. There is anxiety built into this transaction. When I check out, as I am about to in this narrative, my cart packed with vegetables, a little meat, perhaps olive oil or yogurt, it is always civil until I introduce the food stamp card.
Instantly, I am a criminal. The eyes pass back and forth, noticing that I am buying ground lamb, noticing that I am buying a bottle of wine, which I will pay for in cash later on. I see the people behind me looking, as I sweep my EBT card, I see them noticing that I’m buying spinach and bok choi. That I seem glazed and made up, that I am wearing a large diamond wedding ring and have counted my purchases with an older model iPhone. It’s on my parent’s family plan, although I do not have a sticker on it saying so. The outrage grows. I gather my purchases and the checker, sneering, puts them in my bag. As I walk away I see the checker raise his hands and comment about fraud. The voices are hungry, they are hungry. The voices are loud as I leave the store. I do not know if they are hallucinations. If my wife were with me she would tell me they were hallucinations.
Later that night: Full with the lamb pitas I have eaten with my wife, who tells me it was all a delusion and no one cares that I am on food stamps and buying good food. “No one cares what you look like and that you’re on food stamps.” I only wish it were true. Personally, I know there is a narrative people have about the virtuous poor and food stamp fraud. The discussion following this Jezebel article, for example, makes it very clear: There is an image people have if the deserving food stamp receiver, and I am not it. With my taste in food, appearing too made up or done up and wearing my wedding ring and my iPhone, this marks me in the grocery store and makes the patrons groan for the bitch of a scamming white girl that has to ruin everything for everybody.
But I am not committing fraud. And I want to say it every time to the people who scan my cart with their eyes, comment as I walk off with the food that will keep me alive for another week. But my disability is so stigmatized that I stay silent.
I can’t speak of my disability. And why do these strangers deserve such intimate confidences? I can’t say that I am not at all able to work and I need the government to pass me some change because I am wounded. I am the wound. I really need the $100 a month in food stamps. I can’t just tell the checker, “Look, I know I look like I’m doing fraud here but I’m actually schizoaffective, that’s why I’m on EBT.” You can’t say that. I mean, I could, but the security guards are pretty large.
But I am thankful. I am so thankful to the government for providing this assistance, as it has been wonderful and helped me to survive and eat for several years now. I am scrupulously honest in my renewal applications and yet the benefits keep coming. I am thankful.
I have also learned coping mechanisms. I am aware that some of the things I hear people say about me may or may not be psychotic hallucinations. I am aware that my native anxiety drives the stress every time I enter a grocery store, but over the years it has become easier to pull out the card, use it, hide it between my hands again. Having rituals helps, going to the same stores over and over helps. Knowing that in the end what ignorant strangers may think does not impact me. That I will be at home happily cooking while they gnash their teeth in frustration, I will no longer be listening.
I feel that stigma when my card is declined somewhere. I feel that I need to explain. I can feel my face getting hot, the back of my neck broadcasting to all that I know full well why I have been turned down here. The cashier, giving me a knowing look, sometimes sympathetic, often annoyed, and usually disapproving. The economy has made it easier, at least, I can say that much. People know what this economy has done to us all.
I have taken to looking out at people who receive food stamps and support, not with anger and perhaps a tint of jealousy. No, with curiosity and genuine human interest. As you said, Andrea, you don’t “look” like you should be using food stamps, and your tastes are certainly out of the range of the usual PB&J. Still, it’s better to be healthy and eat well enough to make yourself feel good about your situation.
“That I will be at home happily cooking while they gnash their teeth in frustration, I will no longer be listening.”
This is the right attitude, without a doubt. You will be happy, proud that you’ve accomplished a terrifying task just one more time, and it’s still a little easier than last time. And I hope for you that one day, those voices will be laughing, not at you, but with you at those who judge you, looking upon you like the criminal they “know” you are. You will go home, and you will be happy again with your delicious and healthy food, and your wife will be there to care for you.
Ditto. I totally agree, and honestly, the thing is people are CAPABLE of not being judgmental! Really, i mean aren’t we all guilty of it at some point? But it just takes imagination to say, ‘i wonder where this person is coming from..’ and it does make it harder that some people i know do abuse the system out of laziness, making it harder for me to be understood as i am associated with that hipster culture. But we can educate people. If only we all heard each others stories… there would be less judgment. Which is why Im very glad that youre sharing this 🙂
im really glad I came about this. I am having a really hard time in my life right now. Label-wise, I am bipolar, ocd, etc and honestly, (not said outright, but somewhat implied by psychologists) i think i have tendencies toward schizophrenia. but what is debilitating to me are my mood swings. i literally feel like i have a disability sometimes, it really makes me wonder why mental ‘disorders’ are not categorized as disabilities sometimes. i mean, i’d like it and i wouldn’t like it. i see it all as an opportunity. anyway. i have been trying to apply for food stamps and have been met with such frustration in faulty systems and incompetent/careless (or maybe its just the system) benefit representatives that i was literally dissolved to tears today at the health care office. it was so embarrassing, and i already feel so much guilt for asking for them in the first place. but feeling like i can’t even get the help when i know i need it, at least for now? it’s a horrible feeling. and thankfully it looks like its going to work out, but i really do wish that there was more information out there for those w mental disorders applying for state funding! I know i got a lot of dirty looks today and probably some judgment walking into a waiting room crowded with immigrant families and single mothers.. i look normal on the outside. i try to dress well, take care of myself when i can. but its almost a curse. but they dont know how suicidal ive felt today, or how ive literally been so manic lately that ive kind of blacked out shopping and spent $800 in four days. nope… all some people see is the outside… eh. but i am VERY glad to know i am not alone, although it makes me very sad on the flipside 🙁 I appreciate this article, I should write some too 🙂
oops im not sure how the comments are working. but i meant to add, next time im in that situation im going to outright tell the judgmental look-giver what’s up. i mean, we can’t be taken away for verbally clarifying… ha and its worth the discomfort that others might feel to broaden their minds..
Don’t feel bad, we do what we need to do. I’m a man who just got separated and have custody of our daughter. Three things: who are they to judge, on paycheck away from the poverty line themselves (maybe they’re just jealous), you pay all kinds of TAXES everyday; likely you have been PAYING for years, why shouldn’t use available programs when in need? Last, it’s your thinking about what other people are thinking that messing with your mind. Hold your head up high, regardless, and rather than look down, look them in the eye, especially when they are being overtly rude. If you actually hear them say something about you, confront them and ask if they have something to say to you (not for the faint of heart). I am awaiting a decision for disability for an injury that keeps me from doing physical work, and I’m not ashamed to say that I will apply for EVERY program I think I need. Did you know you can get help for your electric bill too? When I applied I was treated very cold by lady responsible for taking applications. Then I thought, she should be grateful to me for helping her keep her job! Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not proud that I use these programs, but neither am I ashamed. My daughter and I live and eat well; that’s the most important thing. I’m not sure if there are any support groups for those in our position, but I’m thinking maybe I should start one. No offense to anyone, but fork those donkeyhats that judge you!