This is not a new concept, nor is it a revolutionary one. But, it is an important one. I recently read a blog posting from a woman who tells the story of a time when her family had to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). What made this woman’s story interesting is because of the scorn she faced as she had to navigate this process. You see, up until that point in her life she had lived the proverbial middle class dream: college educated, she and her husband had lucrative careers, nice house, and a Mercedes in the drive way- you get the picture. But then, two weeks before she gave birth to twins, her husband was laid off. The twins were born six weeks early, so she had to take an extended leave of absence to care for them. Suddenly they were in trouble. So, she does what has to be done in order for her family to survive- she goes to apply for SNAP and WIC. The problem was that the only vehicle that her family had left was her husband’s Mercedes which was reliable, and most importantly, paid off. As she gets out of the car to wait in line, people stare, snicker, and make rude comments. Hers was not the face of poverty that people we accustomed to seeing.
She also tells of times when she faced scrutiny while purchasing her foods using the WIC or SNAP cards: how people felt free to say what they wanted to about what she was purchasing because they thought she was “poor” and therefore they could.
This article eerily reminded me of a time in my life some time ago. My husband got laid off, and then three weeks later I discovered I was expecting our second child. I was 33 years old and due to my “age” it was critical that I receive regular pre-natal care. Unfortunately, at that time there was no Affordable HealthCare, no special program for women without health insurance as there is now. I had to trudge down to the state Human Services office and hope for the best.
I can honestly tell you that the whole experience was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was asked twenty different kinds of inappropriate questions- “Did I know who the father of the child was?” “Was I sure that my husband was the father of my oldest child?” “Had he acknowledged her?” “Were her immunizations up to date?” It took every ounce of self-control to not let the sarcastic remarks fly and tell the worker that I wasn’t sure because I had been too busy going out doing drugs and sleeping around to remember if she had gotten her shots. Why not? It seemed to be what she expected to hear.
I was so angry- why did she ask me these questions? Did she assume that because I needed assistance that it was a given fact that I was promiscuous and irresponsible? The worker had a face of poverty in her mind that she automatically painted on me. Later, after my daughter was born, she had these just unbelievable digestive issues that resulted in her needing an extremely expensive predigested baby formula. As a result, my family was qualified for WIC. One day as I was checking out at the store with the high dollar formula the cashier remarked to me that when she had children no one paid for their formula- they had to buy it themselves. I just smiled at her while my mind was screaming if it wasn’t so expensive I wouldn’t need the help. Why did she feel that it was okay to say such thing to me? Through the whole time, I was embarrassed by my circumstances, now I could add shame.
Why does this happen? Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, have assigned certain characteristics to people in poverty: we make assumptions and designations. This stereotyping can result in discomfort for both sides of the story. When someone who has never experienced a poverty situation before is forced into the situation- the realization that other people who may have previously respected you now treat you as if you were beneath them is startling. When people who frequently encounter people in poverty, whether through personal experience or employment, meet someone who does not fit their profile of what poverty looks like, it is also starling.
What I learned through that time in my life is that people are people. All have intrinsic value, no one person is more valuable than another. Despite popular media campaigns, poverty is faceless. It is true that there are certain indicators that can identify situations that have the potential to result in poverty, but it is also true that there are extenuating circumstances that can unexpectedly end in a poverty situation. Darlene Cunha, the writer of the blog summarizes it beautifully: “We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.” And that about says it all.