49 Million Americans Live With This — So Why Are We So Uncomfortable Talking About It?


Sorry, fellow poor folks. Conservative lawmakers across the country are onto us and our high-falutin' lifestyles, so we're going to have to cut back on using government funds for non-necessities.

Maine Gov. Paul "get off the couch and get yourself a job" LePage recently made clear his thoughts that your cold meat sandwich and slice of pickle lunch are too fancy for someone utilizing governmental food assistance.

By the time I caught the Maine proposal, I mentally tossed it onto the heap with Wisconsin's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) restriction on potatoes, jarred pasta sauce, spices and dried beans, as well as Missouri's on filet mignons and crab legs. The list of foods I wasn't allowed to buy already included any taxed items, most prepared hot food, bakery goods and energy drinks. I could practically hear the articles about new food restrictions in the voice of former President Ronald Reagan, whose commitment to racist storytelling included a line about "strapping young bucks" buying T-bones with their food stamps.

Sometimes I wonder if these people realize the 49 million of us living with food insecurity in this country can hear them debating how we should ration our rations.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that at any given time, around 14% of people in the U.S. have recently "lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life." The USDA isn't following anyone to the gym or making sure they avoid trans fats; this description refers to a baseline intake of nutrition and calories that allows rudimentary function.

To be food insecure is to eat just enough so that you aren't really hungry, just enough so you can put one foot in front of the other, just enough so you can push your body through another workday. Even if you have enough right now, that's no guarantee on tomorrow or next week; considering seconds or extras comes with the guilt of "But what if...?" and its endless scenarios gnawing long after the food is just a memory.

So many people's experiences parallel mine. Not every one of those 49 million has carried the compounding weight of food insecurity on their shoulders for almost 15 years as I have. But many have carried it for far longer — a lifetime, in some cases. Most of us have expert-level skill at downplaying or hiding the reality of our circumstances from coworkers, friends and family.

Some of us hide to shield our loved ones and some because we've watched people shift in their seats when we share something a little too real in a complaint competition over not having enough money. The more we navigate social situations that allow for hints at our near destitution, the more we seek to avoid the sideways glances and uncomfortable check arrival moments while out with friends. We can each do grocery store math at lightning speed to remain inconspicuous to other customers. We become skilled at hiding because we know how uncomfortable poor people make those around them.

No one wants to hear how you triple checked your EBT card before leaving the house or how excited you were about the $2.45 you found in a coat pocket because it meant hitting up the dollar menu during your commute between jobs. You begin to feel more and more Othered until you participate in your own isolation.

Sometimes I wonder if these people realize that the 49 million of us living with food insecurity in this country can hear them debating how we should ration our rations.

For years, I didn't tell anyone the truth of how close I was to teetering over the financial cliff's edge where I'd set up permanent residence in my 20s. I quipped about being tired from working 70, 80 or 90 hours a week — hours sometimes pieced together with four part-time jobs. I joked about being "so broke" like many of us do to fit in, knowing I wasn't putting off a kitchen remodel or downgrading my vacation destination. When I use the word broke, I'm referencing its true definition — "not having any money."

Landing on SNAP five months ago was almost liberating. (In my state of California, food stamps are run through the CalFresh Program.) I couldn't hide my situation anymore as it was. I'd barely established residency after a desperate cross-country move to crash with a friend, who'd offered help in exchange for a hand with child care, when I found myself facing an unexpected medical bill equaling a third of my base monthly income.

By the time my EBT card arrived in January, I was exhausted both mentally and physically. I realized I was more grateful to qualify for a social program that could bridge the gap until I was self-sufficient than I was worried about stigma or people thinking I had gamed the system somehow. I was here to get well, after all.

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I realized when analyzing my initial reluctance toward applying that I had internalized some of the stigma surrounding welfare and food stamps. As I started talking about it more — in real life (very tentatively) with acquaintances, with other friends I knew who had to at least be struggling due to their socially acceptable crushing student loan debt and eventually online — I discovered I was part of a massive minority.

By the time lunch meat and pickles landed on the pile of foods being yanked out of our carts around the country, I'd hit my bullshit limit. At my grocery store I walked past the meat section to the eggs, glanced at the steak and thought, "What do you — any of you! — care if I use $9 of my allotted $140 per month to occasionally buy food I like? It might be my only entertainment that week, and it might be worth eight Ramen lunches in a row to reward myself."

So when the wave of SNAP-shaming, "money-wasting" item-specific exclusions started making headlines, I took offense for myself and for all of us as a group.

I told Twitter how I felt.

A few hours later, #PovertyIs was trending, with contributions from Canada, England and all corners of the U.S.

Very few of the details on the hashtag surprised me. I suspect that's true of most people participating, as we can easily put ourselves in each others' shoes. Hunger, dread, the fatigue that comes with repeated returns to square one — these are universal feelings for everyone who was sharing their poverty experiences.

Some social and economic justice handles jumped in with salient points and to encourage those who were speaking their truths for the first time.

The repetition in the thread became one of its strengths. As people with privilege — especially those who have familial or two-income safety nets but still feel squeezed by the economy — found their way to the stories of all-too-common hardship, their gratitude for having their eyes opened was (and remains) overwhelming. Sure, there were trolls. But mostly people seemed to react as though this was their first experience listening to someone in poverty talk.

How can that be? I thought. There are so many of us! How can so many people appear to have had no contact with a poor person?

A comprehensive NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School Poll in 2001 followed up on the perceived successes and failures of former President Bill Clinton's welfare "reform" in the mid-'90s. (Clinton's overhaul reduced eligibility so drastically that the number of poverty-stricken Americans receiving cash assistance dropped by two-thirds from 1996 to 2012.) In just the five years between the legislation and the poll, responses indicate that many think fewer beneficiaries equals fewer poor people — backing up the anecdotal Twitter experience on the #PovertyIs thread: 50% of Americans are sure that none of their close friends are poor; 63% of Americans think there are no poor people in their immediate or near extended family (aunts, uncles, first cousins, grandparents); a whopping 76% of Americans can't conceive that they might know someone at risk of going hungry tomorrow; and 65% of Americans don't even think they know someone who's been late on a bill.

The reason so many don't think they know anyone living at or near the poverty line also might be because their loved ones are afraid to speak up about the reality of their situation.

Cultural stigma is very real, and poverty is pathologized through intense, systemic victim-blaming. You can see it resonate in the aforementioned poll's results, in which 44% of respondents reported that they're sure welfare recipients don't, you know, need assistance to stay alive, and 78% believe said individuals could get a job if they really wanted one.

Embedded in those numbers are clear assumptions about who gets government assistance and why. A few phrase adjustments, however, can't erase the heritage or the power of stereotype. My admission that I'm a SNAP recipient is invariably met by a furrowed brow; I've had people over the Internet tell me I don't "look like" someone who needs or uses public assistance. In addition to the ignorance in those statements — six in seven households receive some government benefit — there's no getting around the racism inherent to this disbelief.

I look like a young, put-together white woman whose appearance, multiple degrees and outwardly middle-class family provide me the privilege of presenting as middle-class myself. Comments in threads about the SNAP-shaming proposal coverage on my personal Facebook page make it clear people outside my close circle assume that when they address me, they are "among friends" and can make rationalizations about cutting funding and scolding the poor around me. They might as well have physically scanned the room for people of color, made knowing eye contact with a nod and then exhaled into a bigoted joke.

There are so many of us! How can so many people appear to have had no contact with a poor person?

The image Reagan wove so effectively into the 1980 stump speech that kicked off his campaign, given a stone's throw from where three Civil Rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, just 16 years earlier, is alive and well. Demonizing young black mothers as "welfare queens" to play up deep-seated racial animus so strongly reinforced existing stereotypes about women as gold diggers and black people as inherently lazy that the image persists more than a generation later.

As Shanelle Matthews (then of the ACLU, California) wrote last year: "Enough Is Enough: Poor Women Are Not Having Babies for Money." She describes growing up in a poor neighborhood in South Los Angeles where everyone worked at something, and they worked hard. The stigmatization happening to paint welfare beneficiaries as lazy that became justification for the Clinton welfare "reform" was in high gear, and Matthews saw a distinct disconnect between what she was told about her community and what she saw.

To explain this disconnect, Matthews quotes Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty: "Black mothers' inclusion in welfare programs once reserved for white women soon became stigmatized as dependency and proof of Black people's lack of work ethic and social depravity. The image of the welfare mother quickly changed from the worthy white widow to the immoral Black welfare queen."

Racism isn't the only contributor to poverty stigma. Despite studies and reporting on the lack of upward mobility in this country, the American Dream myth persists. Due in part to watching those of us at the tail end of Gen-X suffocating under student loan debt and a tanking economy, millennials may be the first generation not to completely buy into the myth, but the undercurrent remains.

Even pragmatic millennials are prone to the same "Tsk, maybe lazy" judgement as their parents and grandparents when they hear someone admit to utilizing the social safety net. I have difficulty blaming them for the impulse; most of the people I've talked to who have scanned an EBT card or cashed a disability check during their lives have self-blame moments from hearing the myth of meritocracy and mobility growing up.

We continue hearing it as adults from self-congratulatory politicians like Mitt Romney, who thinks a few pasta dinners early in his marriage means he alone is responsible for his wealth and success. They often pivot effortlessly from playing up their supposed scrappy beginnings to either pathologizing or ignoring the poor entirely.

Depending on ideology and party, the poor are typically either to blame for some mythological bringing down of the country, or we don't register as a constituency worth pandering to. We're not middle-class and don't have middle-class needs, so the glorification of this All-American, bootstrapping, picket-fence-having collective leaves us out in the very familiar cold. It doesn't take long to realize you aren't talked about or seen or heard by anyone. After a while, you resign yourself to not having a voice.

#PovertyIs did something I couldn't have predicted or orchestrated: It gave me my voice back. I had always spoken about poverty in a whisper, unable to carry my unapologetic tone over from my speaking and writing on other topics. I could shame politicians for budgets that favored the rich, but I couldn't bring the same personal narrative style to poverty that I use to combat other powerful stigmatized issues.

I was especially surprised to hear thanks from people who had their privilege revealed to them by posts on the thread. No one enjoys finding out their perspective is skewed, but the thanks kept coming. Perhaps that's the real power of so many similar stories linked together: You become a chorus that's harder to ignore and easier to believe.

If we can get you, the 86% who know where your meals are coming from next week, to see us as people, it becomes less necessary to continually explain that every dollar invested in food assistance creates $1.84 in economic stimulus, or that only about 1% of welfare and food stamp recipients are gaming the system. Even if Medicaid fraud were perpetrated by beneficiaries rather than providers, the net good of helping people maintain a base level of health far outweighs a few percentage points in the federal budget.

Reading and connecting to the millions of real people who have made use of government programs to break a cycle of poverty and those who continue to suffer can help you find your inner humanitarian and break your assumptions about poverty. You don't need to do the SNAP challenge; just let us tell you what what our lives are really like every day.