6 posts categorized "Voices of SNAP/WIC"
"It’s easier to build a fence at the top of a cliff than drive an ambulance to the bottom." - Art Simon in Writing Hunger into History.
By Robin Stephenson
Tianna Gaines-Turner knows something about cliffs. The working mother of three children has been climbing and falling off the poverty cliff for years.
Gaines-Turner told her story to the House Budget Committee on July 9, during the fifth War on Poverty hearing – a series of hearings exploring how to better address poverty in America. Gaines-Turner, a member of Witness to Hunger, has been the first expert witness invited to testify who lives the experience of poverty.
“We are always trying to climb up. There is a constant climb,” Gaines-Turner said of her and her husband’s struggle to make ends meet with a combined income of roughly $14,000 a year. Federal benefits, such as housing assistance, medical aid, and food stamps, fill in the income gaps so that the Gaines-Turners can care for their children. All three require daily doses of asthma medicine and their twins suffer from epilepsy.
Budgeting each month in the Gaines-Turner household is a balancing act. When circumstances change, she feels the “cliff effect.” A small increase in income can decrease the amount of food stamp benefits the family can receive. As she improves her circumstances, with each additional dollar earned she loses needed federal assistance yet cannot build assets and save for the future in case of hardship. “If you have savings,” she says, “your caseworker says you are not eligible for programs.” So when a crisis hits, like a reduction in working hours, the Gaines-Turner family slides back down the cliff, never making it to stable ground.
House Budget Committee members differ on their approach to ending poverty. There are those who consider the safety net as creating dependency and those who see federal anti-poverty programs as a bridge out of poverty. Asked if she thought federal programs promoted dependency, Gaines-Turner said, “I don’t think anyone ever wants to rely on federal programs. I feel like people do want to go out and get a job.” Jobs, she noted, can be hard to come by depending on where you live. They also do not always pay a living wage. She went on to respond to notions that poverty was a condition of laziness. “There is not a lazy bone in my body,” she said. “People put that label on us to put up a smoke screen so they don’t see have to see what is really going on.”
Bread for the World Institute outlined its own plan for ending hunger in America in its 2014 Hunger Report. Bread for the World's strategy stresses policies to reduce unemployment and improve the quality of jobs. It also urges a strong safety net, investments in people, and partnerships between community organizations and government programs.
Earlier this year, the House passed the fiscal year 2015 House budget proposal, which makes deep cuts to programs for hungry and poor people in the United States – including cutting food stamps by $125 billion.
The Gaines-Turner family, and millions of working-poor people, need Congress to build a fence at the top of the cliff by funding a strong safety net. At the same time, Congress must also craft policies that lead to living-wage jobs so that families can walk into a better future.
Dawn Phipps (Joseph Molieri)
Voices of SNAP is a regular feature in which people who have received assistance from the federal program give a first-person account of the experience.
By Dawn Phipps
Many people think those of us who need food assistance are nothing but deadbeats and leeches; if we would just put down the bon-bons, get off the couch and get a job, life would be splendid. Ah, there’s a nice fantasy. The truth is that most of us are not deadbeats and leeches. We have jobs. We have families who need to eat. We have children who are wondering when dinner will be ready.
I had children who were wondering when dinner would be ready. One time, instead of telling my daughters I had nothing in the house to make for dinner, I called my ex-husband and made up some excuse about needing him to watch the kids. That way I could take them to his house and they would get dinner.
I eventually went to a food pantry. I was ashamed that I had to ask for help, but I felt welcomed and not judged. They gave me a big box of food. Healthy food. I was ecstatic that I could put something in the cupboard and fix something for my kids to eat. I am a single mom who has always worked full time, who rarely receives child support, and whose extended family has needs of their own, so I have been the sole means of support for my son and myself for quite some time.
When the recession hit a few years ago, I was laid off by my employer, who was a bankruptcy attorney. Three weeks later, I began to receive unemployment. It was helpful, but certainly did not replace what I was making. And all the while I was looking for a job.
I started to apply for every job that I could. Eventually I found myself applying at McDonald's. They told me I was over-qualified. I was feeling desperate and defeated. I realized that if I was going to adequately take care of my son, I was going to have to ask for help. For me, this was like admitting defeat.
Everything went well at the Health & Welfare office, where I applied for benefits, including SNAP. What I was not prepared for was how society would treat me. The first time I received my food stamps, I went shopping for the whole month. It seemed like the smartest way to plan. When people at the grocery store saw my cart, they were not pleased. I had purchased meat, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. I didn’t know buying healthy food was frowned upon. There were rude comments, eye rolling, whispering, people pointing at my cart—even some hostility from the cashier. I started shopping late at night so I might avoid all those judging people.
I even considered shopping in another town where no one would know me.
In January 2011, I finally found a full-time job with the state and in May of that year I received my last disbursement of food stamps. While my son and I were standing in line to purchase the last groceries I would have to use food stamps for, a woman in front of me in line started to chat with me. She said, “I should have known better than to come to the store on the first of the month with these losers and their food stamps. Don’t you feel the same?”
Knowing exactly how I am when it comes to judgmental people, my son told me not to say anything to her: “Please Mom, don’t!” I told my son, “I have to!” I had always made sure that my son had no idea that I was receiving food assistance so I quietly told her I received food stamps so she must think I’m quite a loser as well. I said “I’m sorry you feel this way when you don’t even know me.” I was not going to stand in the same check-out with this person. As I moved my cart to another lane she called out, “Well, you don’t LOOK like you’re on food stamps!”
Dawn Phipps is a nurse and hunger activist living in Boise, Idaho.
A couple of months ago Ayana Edwards' trusty Honda broke down—for good. She was distraught. Edwards commutes 60 miles round-trip each day, from her home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to an office in a part of Virginia that is beyond the reach of public transportation. She immediately began to worry about the possibility of losing her job and her means of providing for herself and her family. Although it's never a good time for a car to die, luckily Edwards' vehicle troubles occurred right around the time she was to file her tax return. She is one of the 27 million Americans who receives the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable federal tax credit that helps working families.
“The EITC has been a huge help," Edwards says. "It really saved me."
Edwards once utilized several federal safety net programs, but over the years she has increased her earnings, through training and a series of progressively better-paying jobs. She is currently working in human resources and no longer qualifies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or SNAP (formerly food stamps). If she continues on her current career trajectory, soon she’ll no longer qualify for EITC, either. But, as it is now, the tax credit provides her and her four children with a very important hand-up.
"It’s practical and allows me to get money in one lump sum—money that I can use to catch up on bills, or make a major purchase, if I need to," she says. "I can get things like coats for the kids, if they’ve outgrown something. I have a larger family, so I’m not always able to replace all of the winter coats that no longer fit all at once. When I get my tax refund, which includes the EITC, that’s something I can do.”
This year, Edwards used her EITC money to buy a used car. She didn't have to scramble to figure out transportation, and she didn't lose her job. That lump sum arrived exactly when she needed it, giving her peace of mind, and preventing a blow from which it might've taken a very long time to recover. Without a working car, how would she get to work? Without a job, how would she pay her rent or feed her family? She thinks that those who diminish the importance of the credit, and think it should be reduced or eliminated altogether, just don't understand it's role in helping millions of families secure food, clothing, and shelter.
“The only people who could say something against [EITC] are those who aren't in a position to need it, or don't care about those of us who really do need it," Edwards says.
In 1983, a North Carolina grocery store publicly notified shoppers that it accepted the U.S. Department of Agriculture WIC vouchers. (Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration/USDA)
Voices of WIC is a regular feature in which people who have received assistance from the federal program give a first-person account of the experience. If you have received or are receiving WIC and would like to share your story, please send an e-mail to Sarah Godfrey at email@example.com.
By Jennifer L. Brown
From December 1997 until May 2010, I worked in the human services field. I truly believe that I was a very good social worker and gave my clients my all. In July of 2010, I was blessed with my son. This should have been the happiest time in my life but, in so many ways, it was the worst time. I was unemployed, with no health insurance, and had nothing ready for my son’s arrival.
After the birth of my son, I became a client of the same programs I once ran. My experience with WIC stands out in particular. I learned so much and truly enjoyed our monthly classes. The peer counseling and the sharing of ideas to calm a crying baby are just a couple of the life jewels I learned as a client of the WIC program in Charleston, South Carolina.
For the first six months of my son’s life I was unemployed, and I honesty do not know how I would have provided nutrition for him without WIC. In our state, the maximum amount of unemployment you can receive is $320, before taxes. This was the only source of income I had to provide for my son and run our household. When I got my current job, in February 2011, I pledged to become a social worker in the mold of the ladies in the WIC office where I received service.
I have learned to treat everyone with value, instead of judging or putting down people who are doing their best in an undesirable situation. I will be forever grateful for what WIC allowed me to do for my son and I will support the program in any way I can.
Jennifer L. Brown is an employment assistance program coordinator with a community human services agency in Charleston, S.C.
By Amanda Bornfree
Even before my first visit to a WIC office, I knew that I wanted to breastfeed my baby. I had only read a little on the importance of breastfeeding, but it was enough for me to realize that I wanted the best for my little one. Breastfeeding offers a host of benefits for both mother and baby. A breastfed baby is less likely to catch pneumonia, develop asthma and allergies, experience diarrhea or constipation, become jaundiced, or die from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). A mother who breastfeeds is less likely to have postpartum depression and develop certain cancers, and is more likely to shed her “baby weight." I was in. Sign me up. I was going to breastfeed.
In the waiting room of the WIC office that I visited monthly for my vouchers while pregnant with my first child, there were various wall posters that promoted breastfeeding. It was encouraging to see them. There were posters in both English and Spanish, catering to the diverse demographics of my Chicago neighborhood. The posters displayed information regarding hunger cues from infants, charts that compared infant formula to breast milk, and also the standard FAQ in regard to breastfeeding.
When I spoke with WIC employees they made a point to share facts about the benefits of breastfeeding, and that made me excited about the great nutrients that my body was developing. I learned that if I chose to breastfeed, I could continue to receive vouchers for up to a year after the birth of my baby, if I continued to qualify for the program—if I decided to formula-feed, the maximum amount of time would be six months. If I chose to formula-feed my baby, my vouchers would also have fewer food items on them, in order to make up for the cost of formula. WIC vouchers supply a certain amount of formula for babies, but not enough to cover the total cost of all of the food an infant needs. Breast milk, on the other hand, is not only better for the baby, but free. Wow!
It was at a WIC office that I was first introduced to the role of a breastfeeding counselor. During one of my visits, a WIC employee told me that if I had any questions about breastfeeding, or any difficulty with breastfeeding, there were breastfeeding counselors that I could call for advice. My eyes widened as she explained the details of WIC's breastfeeding program: “Once you give birth, if you are breastfeeding, we have a form that you can give to your doctor to fill out to receive a free breast pump," she said. "You have to be covered by the state to qualify. Since you’re on Medicaid, you do qualify. This will make it much easier for you to return to work or look for a job and continue to breastfeed your baby.”
Once again, I knew that WIC had my back. I knew that they truly cared and had the resources to help mothers during this critical time.
When I think of how devastating it would be to lose the circle of protection around WIC, my heart sinks. I was fortunate enough to know a little about the benefits of breastfeeding prior to visiting my local WIC office, but plenty of women are introduced to these benefits at a WIC office. I had decided that I would breastfeed prior to visiting WIC, but plenty of women have come to that decision because of WIC.
Once my daughter was nine months old, I became a breastfeeding peer counselor myself, through AmeriCorps. I wanted to do for others what was done for me–I wanted to educate and promote the facts about breast milk, and support women on their breastfeeding journeys.
Amanda Bornfree is a consultant in the church relations department at Bread for the World.
A mother talks to a WIC nutrition counselor outside of a farmers market in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Photo: USDA)
By Amanda Bornfree
A couple of weeks after I found out my husband and I were expecting our first child, we lost our health insurance. We were disappointed, as is to be expected. I had been excited about going forth with my prenatal check-ups with a doctor I had chosen for her directness, serious demeanor, and expertise.
Due to our sudden shift in income, we now qualified for Medicaid and I was eligible for WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) benefits. The doctor who I had imagined would deliver our baby did not accept Medicaid. I had to look elsewhere.
A caseworker contacted me and invited me to a WIC clinic. I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect and, ultimately, I wanted what would be best for my little baby. I thought, would I find it there? I didn’t want to stress.
When I arrived at the clinic, I was greeted by a sweet woman with sandy brown hair and a light voice. She was my caseworker. After filling out important paperwork, she went over my options for doctors and midwives. She spoke of each professional with respect and honesty. She shared with me the various options I could choose from. I was a little surprised that I had choices. Once I selected the professional I wanted to visit, my caseworker picked up the phone and made my first appointment. I wanted to open my arms and embrace her. But my first WIC appointment wasn’t over with yet.
“Are you taking prenatal vitamins?” she asked.
Yes, I nodded.
She pulled out a pamphlet about the nutrition that I needed as a pregnant woman. She talked me through it, and answered all of my questions. She then informed me of the WIC monthly vouchers. I would be able to receive foods with essential nutrients for my body and my baby.
Finding out that I could use some vouchers at farmers markets made me smile. I remember thinking, my baby and I are just as important as the family that is fortunate enough to frequent farmers markets. Though I’ve never believed that I was less than anyone, I was indeed vulnerable—I was pregnant for the first time and my household income had plummeted. The assistance I received made me feel loved and important. It gave my husband and I more faith in our belief that everything was going to be alright. And that faith fed our determination to succeed.
When I looked around the WIC clinic, I saw that I was among a community of women that cared for each other. Different generations, complexions, languages, and experiences—all of us present to keep ourselves and our families healthy. We all believed in that, whether we were there to help or to receive help. We all believed that everyone has the right to live a healthy life, and that a healthy life begins during the period from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until her child’s second birthday—the crucial 1,000 days.
Amanda Bornfree is a consultant in the church relations department at Bread for the World.
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