My palms start to sweat before I even get in line. I choose my checkout carefully, trying to find a cashier who looks quick and sympathetic. Ideally, I would be able to suss out the other customers in line, but I can’t figure out who will be behind me until I’ve already chosen. My palms are sweating a little now as I type.
I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed that with all of my potential, with all of my education and work ethic, with all of my good choices, I can’t feed my family. I’m ashamed that how I’m about to pay is going to put my poverty on display and open me up for judgment and scorn. I’m ashamed that I’m willing to do this for $30 worth of food.
Most of all, I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed.
In my head, I know that using government support is not shameful. I believe completely that early nutrition is important, and I believe that people, all people, have a right to live without fear of starvation. I also believe the government has a vested interesting in keeping the population generally healthy and stable, so as not to encourage revolution. Poverty is situational, not moral. If a system is such that a person who works hard cannot afford to eat balanced meals, I believe that the system needs to correct for that.
But I’m ashamed anyway.
I put my groceries on the conveyor belt, carefully organizing them so that the cashier will be able to check each item off of each check as quickly as possible. Even people who don’t think I’m a lazy freeloading greedy asshole who can’t control the size of my own family get frustrated when it takes a long time for the cashier to get through my checks. And it always takes a long time. I constantly hear stories about people on “entitlements” using their food stamps to buy cigarettes and Mountain Dew, but the WIC program is very precise in what you can and cannot get. Each item has to be checked against each check.
I have a PhD and an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League college. Even so, almost every time I check out, there is something that I have picked up that doesn’t match the WIC requirements exactly. “Just drop it,” I say, my voice shaking, my cheeks flushed. I need peanut butter, but I don’t need it enough to make people wait in line longer, to cause a bigger fuss than I already have. Maybe the kind I picked up is 15.5 ounces instead of 16, maybe there is something added in the ingredients list that I missed. “Just skip that, you can put that back on the shelf.”
People don’t usually say anything to me. They mutter to each other, “I should have known better than to come on the first of the month,” because on the first of the month, that’s when all the poor people get their rations, and nobody likes to share a store with poor people. They cluck disapprovingly at my daughters, my bilingual, whip-smart, and socially conscious toddler and my happy, healthy, chubby infant, and shake their heads. They stare at the other items in my cart, clearly evaluating my non-WIC purchases. If they’re paying for my groceries, they should choose what kind of yogurt I get, right? They sigh loudly when the cashier looks at the first check, and their sighs get louder as the groceries go through. They don’t meet my eye.
In my head, I dare them to challenge me. “How did you serve your country?” I want to ask, because I served in the Peace Corps and that 2.5 years put me behind in my career, behind in my child-rearing, and set me up with a husband who had to restart his entire education from scratch in a new country. “How does your career affect society?” Because I’m proud to work in education, I believe in what I do. It doesn’t cover the bills. But they don’t challenge me, just grunt and sigh and judge and look at their watches.
Once, only once, a woman nodded her head at the direction of my checks. It was during the government shutdown of 2013, and I had just gotten back on the program because I was pregnant with my second child because as a family of three, we managed, but not quite as a family of four. My stomach lurched, afraid to get into a confrontation in front of my daughter, afraid for her to feel the shame that had nothing to do with her. “I’m so glad the government shutdown hasn’t affected WIC here,” she said, quietly. “I was so worried about the people who need it.” I thanked her, and promptly began to cry, from relief and gratitude and being touched by her kindness. I am crying now, remembering it.
Using government assistance to pay for food feels shitty, and it is hard, and I do it because while my husband is finishing up his degree, that $16 worth of produce every month makes a difference. I do it because I want for my daughters to get a good start on nutrition, and if that means swallowing my pride, swallow my pride I will. My husband graduates this year, and we won’t have to live off just my salary anymore. As is the case for most people on government assistance, this is a temporary need.
I hope that when we become a two-income family, I will be like the woman who told me how glad she was for the program. I hope that I won’t forget what it’s like to be so grateful for those few extra dollars that they are worth the shame and judgment, and I hope that I will never use my own situational non-poverty to judge anybody else’s situational poverty.
Mostly, I hope that I don’t ever reduce anybody else’s humanity to a label — “poor” “entitled” “welfare queen” — just because I can. It’s easy to sigh, to judge, to cluck. It’s easy to imagine that anybody who gets spinach and milk from the government is lazy and stupid. It’s easy to feel morally superior based on ability to pay bills. It takes a much bigger person to find compassion and understanding.
I hope I can be that kind of person.