WIC Up My Sleeve: How it Feels to Use Government Assistance

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.

Example of a WIC check.
Example of a WIC check. From WikiHow.

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.

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Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

5 thoughts on “WIC Up My Sleeve: How it Feels to Use Government Assistance”

  1. I don’t like the fact that I’m on public assistance for health insurance, because it means my income is very low. But I like having it because any other plan for my health problems would cost more monthly than I make in a month, and definitely more than out-of-pocket no-insurance costs. Plus I refill two to three medications each month and I have *weekly* doctor’s visits.

  2. I was forever grateful when I discovered that I could use my SNAP card at self check-out registers. And I did, anywhere I went that HAD self check-out. Because nobody noticed that I was using THAT card. They just saw a hand basket of mostly healthy food and some totally self-serving items (with $180 a month, I could SO get a $2 bag of gummy bears during Shark Week) and that I checked myself out fast. Nobody noticed.

    It’s ridiculous that someone who needs help in order to eat (or feed their children) feels any shame at all.

  3. I have done WIC compliance buys, and in my experience, I have had more trouble with the cashiers making comments than people behind me. I can only hope they dumped on me instead of someone else that day, and I made sure to make special note in my reports.

  4. Maybe it was my age (between 19-22), maybe it was where I lived (largeish city with quite a large population of poor people), and maybe things have changed, but I don’t remember being judged the way I keep hearing people talk about.

    I was on WIC and foodstamps (both before and after the SNAP cards were first issued), and while I remember certain stores having certain rules about how you placed your items on the belt (check first, then the items that went along with the check, and you damn sure better put that divider thingamebob between the checks!), I don’t remember a single person even muttering under their breath in my general direction.

    Of course I was young and stupid, so it’s entirely possible I was just being oblivious.

    However, I’m inclined to think the American public has risen taller on its collective high horse. Has become more judgemental in the almost 20 years since I first went on public assistance.

    The American public needs to get its collective head out of its collective ass, is basically what I’m trying to say. (Which is a lot easier to say when you don’t live there anymore, I do realize.)

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