Food stamps and me

 

I am my father’s pride and joy, a graduate of the University of Florida, a Fulbright scholar, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Montana in Missoula, and a food stamp recipient. Without that assistance, I wouldn’t be at college; I’d probably be working at a restaurant, coffee bar or supermarket.

This year marks another wave of food stamp reductions as a result of President Obama’s decision to sign the Farm Bill that Congress passed early last year, which promises to cut $8.6 billion to the program over the next decade. It was one of the few actions of Obama’s presidency my father applauded.

A 62-year-old retired warehouse worker, my father thinks of himself as blue-collar and often says that every man should earn his “fat.” Not long ago, I interrupted his rejoicing over the recent cutbacks and asked him how many people he knew who used food stamps. He immediately listed welfare queens, crack addicts and too many undeserving illegal immigrants.

I repeated my question, “But how many do you know?” He searched his mental Rolodex before our eyes found each other. “That’s right,” I said, “one.”

Several students in my graduate program are also on food stamps. A few are single mothers with young children, some are returning to school after 15 years of cubicle life, while others simply can’t close the gap between earning a minimum wage and the cost of living. We know that our situations are temporary, and one day, we hope, our higher education will help us secure a job that contributes heftily to the tax base.

But right now, we would be starving college students, or almost-starving students, or even not be students at all, were it not for food stamps.

The students I know who rely on this government assistance all live frugal lives; they have roommates, drive older vehicles, and have reliable work histories, during which they contributed their share of taxes. Some of us do some teaching at the university, others make lattes and bus tables while balancing full course loads. We reuse plastic grocery bags as trash bin liners. We wash and reuse foil, pickle jars and Ziploc baggies. We have few addictions, the most common being cycling.

When we entered the workforce with bachelor’s degrees in hand, we expected to find job security, benefits and a wage that could help us pay back student loans. What we found was part-time work, no sick leave and a salary that couldn’t support even the most austere lifestyle.

My father is hardly alone in making sweeping assumptions about welfare recipients. But while I have no doubt that some people abuse the food stamp system the way many others cheat and try to avoid paying their taxes, or the way that wealthy bankers try to game the banking system, I am convinced that there are countless families and individuals who would suffer without it. It may sound like a cliché, but food stamps function as a true safety net.

When the program works the way it should, food stamps allow people the opportunity to transition away from government assistance and toward a more secure future. When I graduate in May 2015, I will have earned a master’s degree with the aid of government assistance, and with that degree I plan to join my community as a financially independent, stable, contributing taxpayer.

While my father may continue to think that I did this by working hard and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, as the saying goes, of course, he knows the truth: I was poor, I needed the federal government to keep me afloat while I got educated, and it was there to help me.

Erica Langston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She will graduate in May with a Master of Science degree in Environmental Studies

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.