Growing up on food stamps, I had no idea I was despised

I appreciate that society fed me and my mother when she couldn’t work. But does needing help make you less than the giver?

SHARE Growing up on food stamps, I had no idea I was despised

People buy grocery food with food stamps

Chicago Sun Times

I grew up on food stamps. I also grew up on literature like “Little Women,” “The Five Little Peppers,” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” that viewed people who were poor with compassion.

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy don’t like being poor, but they give up their Christmas breakfast to an even poorer family. The Pepper family is poor but good and hardworking. Francie in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” knows what it’s like to be hungry — and vows to never forget what it’s like to be poor.

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So my childhood self assumed that most people felt likewise: poor people were the same as anybody else, and it was good to give a helping hand. I was raised Catholic, too, and according to the nuns, that was Jesus’s point of view, too: the beggar asking for money might really be Jesus in disguise.

So I still remember the high school “current events” discussion, U.S. History, sophomore year, about “food stamps people.” I listened to my classmates, sinking further and further into my desk:

“My mom looks in their carts, and if she sees steaks in there, she’ll say, loud, ‘We can’t afford that and we work.’”

“My mom does that, too! If she sees sweet rolls in their cars, she gets mad.”

“I just think they should be more humble.”

Was there a way to disappear? I scrunched back as far as I could in my chair, drawing geometric shapes in my spiral notebook, hoping no one was looking at me and could guess that I was a “food stamp person.”

My mother lived with schizophrenia, and sometimes she worked, sometimes she didn’t. We moved around a lot, were evicted from time to time. We got public aid benefits and used food stamps — and sometimes we bought sweet rolls. I never realized that being on food stamps was something to hide or be ashamed of, that my classmates would think I should be humble.

After that, I’d look at other kids I passed in the hall, wondering what they’d think if they knew I was a food stamp person. Would they want me to act humble? Guilty, I wondered: Should I quit school and get a job so we wouldn’t need stamps?

I didn’t quit school; I graduated, earning scholarships to colleges. I’ve worked my entire adult life and have never needed to be on stamps, thank God. But I’ve never forgotten that high school moment, realizing people I knew despised people like me.

I watched the author J.K. Rowling in a TV interview talk about being on the dole and the humiliation, although she also expresses gratitude: “I would have starved.” Likewise, I appreciate that society fed me and my mother when she couldn’t work. But does needing help make you less than the giver?

Attitudes haven’t changed. When I worked for agencies serving people with disabilities and made phone calls to help clients get public assistance, often case workers would speak with the kind of condescension toward my clients that I remember my mother experiencing, back when I tagged along to public aid offices with her.

Recently, I read a letter to the editor in the Sun-Times disparaging folks buying iced coffee and energy drinks with SNAP benefits, assuming they’re snatching more healthy food from their children’s mouths. Why must people down on their luck be held to a different standard? Do we know that the person paying cash for their sweet rolls or Starbucks are feeding their kids fruit and vegetables?

I wonder if the classmate who wanted people like me to be humble would have wanted to swap childhoods. But, of course, she had no idea what my life was like, any more than I have any idea about hers.

Maybe it’s wiser not to make assumptions, and kinder not to make snap judgments. 

Diane O’Neill is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in LADYBUG Magazine, the South Side Weekly, the Journal of Modern Poetry, and It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.

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