I’m a snotty 16-year-old with a crush on Reed, the dark-haired, fair-skinned dreamboat who bags groceries in my line (when I’m lucky). My feet hurt from standing at a Winn Dixie cash register all day.
Weigh the bananas. Type in produce code 4011. Take bananas off scale.
“Have a nice day,” I say, sincerely insincere.
A heavyset mother of about 25 trailing a rowdy brood of kids steps forward and hands me a sheet of paper with a government logo across the top.
WIC. I hate WIC.
WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a federal program, similar to food stamps, that provides assistance specifically to mothers, pregnant women and their young children, paying for essentials like baby food, formula, bread and milk. It also educates mothers on nutrition and the art of breastfeeding, which is much harder than it looks.
But for cashiers, filling out the forms and processing the paperwork takes forever, and I can’t seem to get it right. So my line gets longer. Customers get irritated. And my feet hurt.
Why can’t the government come up with a better way to help people without making my life miserable?
Two thousand dollars a month. That’s the income cap to qualify for food stamps in Texas. Two thousand dollars a month for a family of three.
My parents were teachers, no big paychecks or buyouts, but they were smart with their money and paid for everything with cash. I don’t think they started using credit cards until I was an adult. They instilled their zero-debt policy in me as well, and the Discover card my mother put in my name when I graduated from high school still gets paid off every month.
We’re standing in line at Target. My husband pays for our groceries while I coo and cuddle my baby girl, who’s gazing up at me from her expensive car seat in the front of the cart. My husband takes a white card out of his wallet, slides it through the machine, enters his 4-digit PIN, and looks down. The receipt prints. Niceties are exchanged. Plastic bags are gathered. I doubt the overworked cashier even notices we’re not paying with credit.
Last April we joined the 46 million Americans living on food stamps, more accurately known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Four million of those people are Texans. The federally funded program provides food assistance to people who earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of three.
Since 2007, Texas has added more than 1.4 million new food stamp recipients to its ranks. During the month of April—my first in the program—Tarrant County provided food stamp assistance to almost 220,000 residents at a cost of more than $27 million, according to Texas Health and Human Services. That means 12 percent of folks living in Tarrant County are carrying little white plastic cards like mine.
I never thought I’d need the help. I once bought two bicycles for $800 from a fancy bike shop. I got the helmets too, at $30 each. That’s nearly $1,000 of sports gear collecting dust in the garage of our three-bedroom ranch-style house near Fort Worth. I have a master’s degree in journalism. My husband was working on his MBA at the University of Texas at Arlington before he lost his job and before we ran out of money. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of graduate students clinging to white plastic lifelines is growing. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of students receiving food stamps doubled. Some 360,000 highly educated Americans now eat breakfast, lunch and dinner courtesy of Uncle Sam.
What gives? Decades of research says that lack of education and poverty go hand in hand. The overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients still lack a college degree, but now there’s a surprising subgroup: 1 percent of food stamp recipients have a graduate degree, a number that’s tripled since 2007.
Food stamps will buy any type of food, including powdered donuts, Snickers bars, Diet Coke, and organic cucumbers. I get $526—the max—deposited into my food stamp account each month to spend on anything but prepackaged and ready-to-eat meals, the kind of stuff you’d get at Target’s in-store deli or café. Alcohol and cigarettes are verboten too. I’m surprised to learn that seed packets are on the approved food stamp list, but I’ve never bought any. The planting, watering and waiting would take up too much time—an equally precious commodity.
Poverty can’t be recognized in any outward sign, though it has its stereotypical markers: ratty clothes, ratty purse, ratty wallet, ratty kids with food-stained faces running wild at the end of the checkout line.
And obesity. It’s another sign of poverty that initially confounded me. If you’re poor, how can you be fat? Wouldn’t you be skinny because you can’t afford enough to eat?
But shopping proved my logic faulty. I can buy a lot more Mrs. Baird’s powdered donuts at $2 a bag than organic cucumbers at $2.25 apiece. I’ve got a family of three to feed. Organic cucumbers aren’t going to cut it.
Buying “junk food” with food stamps is a paradox that Congress weighed in 2008. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, “Several times in the history of SNAP, Congress had considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits. However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.”
Unless junk food is taken off the list of eligible food items or the cost of healthy fare decreases dramatically, poor people are likely to continue leading heavier, unhealthier lives.
In 2012, Texas was identified as the 10th-fattest state in the country in a study from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sixty-six percent of Texans are carrying around too many pounds: A whopping 30.4 percent are classified as obese, and another 35 percent are overweight.
According to the Texas Comptroller’s office, lack of education and income are directly related to obesity; without education you make less money, which makes you more likely to be poor, which makes you more likely to be fat. Just 22 percent of college graduates are obese, while 37 percent of Texans without a high school diploma fall into the category.
Today, nearly 6 million Texans live in poverty. For a family of four that means an annual household income of less than $22,050 a year. And 23 percent of Texans are impoverished, exceeding the national average of 20 percent. From 2009 to 2010, Texas added another 373,000 poor residents—a population the size of Arlington.
And 38 percent of Texans who earn between $15,000 and $24,000 a year are—you guessed it— obese.
I’m at Target with just my baby in tow, my cart filled with candy (dark chocolate M&Ms and Raisinets). I’ve also got some good stuff, like bananas and all-natural lunchmeat. Oh yeah, and cookies.
“Did you find everything?” asks the chirpy cashier.
I’m so glad she’s not some super-hot guy or especially beautiful young woman. It keeps my own insecurities in check.
“Is this good?” she asks, ringing up the Target brand artificial sweetener.
“Oh yes, and so much cheaper than the brand-name stuff,” I say.
See what a frugal, responsible consumer I am?
I babble on about the virtues of artificial sweetener. I take out my shiny white card, covering its unmistakable logo with my thumb.
God, please. Faster.
The machine asks me a question. I have to choose the green or the red button, EBT Cash or SNAP. I freeze.
“Pick the green button,” the cashier says. “Some people pick the red button and we have to start all over.”
I enter my PIN.
I wish we could talk about artificial sweeteners again.
She hands me my receipt, and coupons. I stuff the papers into my pocket.
SNAP Balance: $618.86. I’m rich.
I don’t want to look like I need this white card, because poverty isn’t pretty. It is worn, rumpled, wrinkled, threadbare, disheveled, stained, faded, and scared. It’s thriftstore bargains, Walmart specials, chronic stress, and purple bags under tired eyes.
My daughter was born a little over a year ago, and I still can’t fit into my pre-baby clothes. I also can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe, so I have a three-shirt rotation and couple of pairs of jeans. Buying new clothes makes me feel guilty.
A few days after we got our little white cards in the mail, I confessed to my mom that I was “taking advantage of the federal government’s largesse.” I knew she would find out anyway, and I wanted to spin the story, make it appear positive, happy.
“We qualified for SNAP. You know, the government food stamp program.”
Her eyes widened but her mouth didn’t flinch.
“Wow, I wish I could qualify.”
What a lovely white lie.
This time I’m at Target alone—no baby or husband to distract the cashier. I’m in a hurry and speedwalk through the doors of the upscale Target in the Montgomery shopping development in downtown Fort Worth. I try to avoid ritzy places like this because I feel like a pariah with my food stamp card. But I was in the area and just needed a few things. I’m productive. I’m efficient.
I get two packages of low-fat, low-carb, wheat tortilla wraps ($3.49 each) and two pounds of low-fat Kretschmar ham ($7.99 a pound) and head to the shortest line, operated by a cashier who looks nonjudgmental.
The petite blonde in front of me puts her leather wallet back inside her Gucci handbag and thanks the cashier. She walks out with bags full of French bread, wine and Greek yogurt.
I slide my sunglasses on before putting my food on the counter. The young Hispanic cashier with pretty glasses totals my purchases and I slide my white card through the machine.
“EBT Cash or SNAP,” the machine asks.
“Enter PIN,” it beams.
I carefully select the numbers on the keypad.
“Do you want all $23.56 on the card?” it asks.
One second passes. Two, three, four, five …
“Invalid PIN,” the machine screams at me. INVALID PIN!
I look at the cashier pleadingly: This is really my card! Please believe me.
I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t. Food stamp fraud is a booming business. In 2011, 850,000 Americans were investigated for selling their cards for cash. Such fraud costs taxpayers $750 million each year—1 percent of the $75 billion the government spends on the program annually.
“Try clearing it and entering your PIN again,” the cashier says.
Okay. Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out!
I do it again. And again.
The world begins to move in slow motion. Panic seizes me. I’m choking on my worst-case scenario.
“Uh, it’s still not working. Can you try swiping it?” I ask the cashier.
“It says it’s invalid,” she says.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
The sandwich I just ate is doing flip-flops in my stomach.
“Use this,” I say, handing her my Discover card.
“That worked,” she says, smiling. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s not your fault.”
I look over my shoulder. The woman who was standing behind me has moved to another line.
Please God I hope nobody saw me.
I throw my food stamp card into my purse and scurry out of the store. My bag of lunchmeat and tortillas has suddenly become a luxury. That was $23 of my money.
In the parking lot I call my husband.
“Mike, the card didn’t work.”
“We have $300 left in there,” he says.
“Well, it didn’t work and I had to use our credit card,” I say. “I was so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he says. “The cashier probably uses food stamps too. Who cares what they think? I don’t care what they think of me.”
“I do,” I say. “I do.”
I still remember what I thought when I was the cashier, ringing up the poor mother with her government-issued food voucher. I’d known that would never be me.
There’s a little boy on the Texas benefits homepage who looks like his face hasn’t been washed in days. He’s awkwardly holding a spoon and eating something that looks like oatmeal. He reminds me of a street urchin, hiding in the shadows, searching for a scrap, begging for a handout. His blue eyes look hungry.
My stomach turns again.
That boy is a mother’s son. Some mother who might hate herself just as much as I do at this moment. I think of my daughter. I would die if anyone ever thought about her what I’m thinking right now, staring at the image of this poor child.
I hope my daughter never needs to learn how to use that white plastic card. Or knows how poor you have to be to qualify for food stamps. I hope she becomes the woman I envy, carrying that leather Gucci handbag out of Target, arms wrapped around bags full of wine, French bread and Greek yogurt, looking like she hasn’t got a care in the world.