We do not fit the stereotype of a family on food stamps. I hold a graduate degree and work as a contractor with community health organizations, along with various other hustles. My wife, Amber, is a teacher. Thanks to a Great Recession discount, we own two properties: a townhome in an upper middle class section of San Diego County and a rental condo in a shitty part of Phoenix, Arizona. We are not big spenders: We have two used cars, a Mazda and a Nissan, both are rental car gray, and one is paid off. We don’t have cable; we stream movies with “borrowed” passwords that allow access to premium stations. We travel a bit, but only if we rent out our lives and home on Airbnb.
Food stamps, officially known as CalFresh in our state, became part of our lives after Amber left her teaching job to be tortured as a stay-at-home mom to our three boys. The registration process was straightforward. We completed an online application, where we uploaded bank statements and attested that we had never been convicted of trading benefits for guns, drugs, or explosives, the latter of which sounded pretty exciting. A week later, we received a letter listing a day and time for a phone interview with our caseworker. Be available, or be hungry.
The phone interviewer was polite but prying. She asked about income from past employment and my reasons for leaving. As a contractor, also known as a glorified job hopper, my history was difficult to explain. We were less than halfway through the year and I had already completed contracts for three different companies. As for my income, I was on pace to make anywhere from 55k to 75k.
“So who was your employer?” she asked. “Well, I was a contractor, so myself.” Bad answer. The interviewer said I would need to submit last year’s business tax returns. I explained that I didn’t file business taxes, but I was self-employed and temporarily worked on projects. We went back and forth. I was tired of trying of explain and the interviewer was tired of trying to understand. She asked that I submit the same bank statements I had already uploaded. I did not argue.
We were awarded $407 a month in food stamp benefits. This may sound like a lot of money, but to put it in Feed the Children terms, it came out to about 55 cents per meal for each of the five of us. Still, I wasn’t complaining, as the federal name of the food stamp program (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) suggests, the benefit was meant to supplement our existing food resources.
But dammit, that extra $407 made me feel food-rich. We still bought our staples—spinach, whole chickens for roasting and soup the day after, milk and eggs—but on occasion we would “splurge” on foods that were new to us, like bison steaks from Super Walmart and swordfish from Trader Joe’s.
With such good eating for free, I did, at times, feel like a government moocher. There I was, educated and employed but accepting a handout. I thought of Newt Gingrich, the smug former Speaker of the House, calling President Obama the “food stamp president.” It was a race-loaded term, and Newt damn well knew it. Yet, I was giving credence to the stereotype: a black man benefiting from the system.
The self-pity passed in the time it took it took to sear a swordfish steak. After all, I worked and paid taxes, though sometimes not until IRS threatened to garnish my wages. Plus, the food stamp program, I learned, was only two percent of our federal budget, less than half of what taxpayers spend on corporate welfare, though there was never any talk of drug testing corporate welfare recipients. And like America itself, the racial makeup of the program was diverse, though still mostly white.
As my wife and I “came out the pantry” and told others that we were on food stamps, we learned some of our friends, also middle income, were benefiting from the program, including a small business owner with a stay-at-home wife and two kids; a semi-retired couple who worked part-time in the service industry; and a successful doctor. Well, the doctor was actually buying food stamps from family members at half value. Hey, it beats trading them for explosives.
After a few months on food assistance, I got an additional contract, which reduced our monthly benefits. Then we sold the rental property and used the profits to pay off most of our consumer debt. I also treated myself to a new pair of desert boots and bought the family a year-long membership to the Children’s Museum. Ballin’!
Shortly after, we came up for food stamp re-certification, a time when the County double-checks your income to make sure you’re still po’. We submitted updated paperwork and completed another phone interview. My job(s) again became an issue, though this interviewer was much less lenient. Apparently, “the contract ended” was insufficient proof that I had moved on from a previous job. I would need to submit written evidence on company letterhead detailing dates of employment and reasons for leaving. They asked my wife for the same, even though she had left her job well over a year ago.
Well, I was too damn private and proud to ask past employers for the letters. I’ve done a lot work in the social services industry, and I know “employer documentation request” is code for “broke ass on welfare.” I explained this to my caseworker, and she understood, but not enough to bend the seemingly arbitrary rules.
Our benefits were canceled. We’re still managing well, though we eat fewer bison steaks and more roasted chickens.
Update, February 2017: My tax bill for 2016 was $6,237. F**k!