a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
by Katie Willis
My stomach is full. Vegetables, pickle jars, butter, cheese, and eggs sit nestled precariously in the mini-fridge I share with my girlfriend. I do not know the pangs of hunger, nor the anxiety of grocery shopping; I do not clip coupons or shop for the weekly deals. For the moment, my struggle is small. Though my minimum wage paycheck barely covers my monthly rent, student loan payments, and car insurance, I live comfortably. I do not sacrifice happiness for survival.
But I willingly and happily admit that I live on Food Stamps. After moving back to Middlebury at the beginning of this year, I sent in my fourth application for assistance and was approved for the small sum of $34 per month. If I worked on the budget I started building for myself six months ago, I could probably make my monthly allotment stretch, but I dilute it. Mix in the tip money I collect after every coffee shop shift and store in a bowl by one of our windows.
When I first started using food stamps three years ago, I skipped shame and went straight for guilt. I worried I was taking money from people who actually needed it. People with children. People with disabilities. Old people. Tired people. Sick people. Unemployed people. Homeless people. Poor people. But now, after feeling the slight cushion in my wallet grow and shrink, I cling to entitlement. I am entitled to my food stamps. I deserve them. I am white and college-educated. I did not grow up on public assistance; I didn’t have friends on food stamps, but I lived on the fringes of poverty, what I liked to think of as comfortably lower class, with parents who often allowed my family to live outside of our means and quickly tried to wedge back into our places when money got tight.
Graduating from college is difficult. Graduating from Middlebury wrings you dry of any small amount you are able to save. Though I’ve been on assistance in a myriad of situations, once even before I had received my diploma, I experienced the most challenges, financially, when the six-month grace period on my student loans finally came to a close.
At the time, I was working the ultimate job of privilege, plowing fields, bunching carrots, cleaning garlic on a small organic farm in the Hudson Valley of New York, one more commonly worked by the “under-burdened,” those without loans and with financially supportive parents. There I earned $850 a month. I worked nearly 50 hours a week, slept in one of five lofted beds in a converted, but poorly insulated garage, and began to slowly pare down the small sum of my childhood savings, money I had been funneling from elementary school birthdays and the tiny paychecks I received during high school from my part-time gig in a fabric store.
Currently, from opinions expressed to me directly and via the internet and newspapers around the United States, I understand that people, from all walks of life believe no one deserves assistance. And recipients of this minute monthly amount are lazy, unemployed, and responsible for their situation.
Unfortunately, not one of us lives in a mess of our own making. We did not fall into this by choice or by mistake. We did not do anything but work with the tools given us by society to arrive in a mountain of chaos. And I wouldn’t be on food stamps if I didn’t need them. The application for food stamps and most public assistance is a pain.
You fill out forms; you wait; you squander your savings; you wait; you fill out more forms; you call the city or the county or the state; you sit on hold; you sit on hold for what seems like months (months that go by without the assistance necessary for your ultimate, uplifting survival); you get notice after notice that you left something out; you take forms to your employer, your former employer, your landlord, your girlfriend, your doctor, your dead cat; you go in for an interview; you plead with the government, with the person with a semblance of power, the figure of humanity sitting before you to consider your loans, your commute, your car insurance; you wait, by the mailbox, by your email, you call the number on the back of the EBT card you’ve been given, anxiety growing, listening to the same voice tell you, “balance, zero dollars;” you grow small, you shed your humanity, you question, “why am I waiting? What am I waiting for? Do I even deserve this;” you finally receive a notice of your “award,” you activate it, frustrated at the small sum, wondering how you will ever feed yourself; you wander store to store looking for the stickers, the signs, the permission to spend food stamps; you wrongly assume your money is welcome; you fill your cart with items you’ve been resisting, rich, decadent gourmet items; you recoil when they say, “we do not accept EBT;” you slide your card on your first purchases, feel the power in your hand, think about how you can finally put away money; you check your balance on your grocery receipt; you realize that your monthly allotment is all used up, on just one purchase; you begin to receive more letters, asking for more proof that you deserve this; you crumble; you bring the new forms in your car, always intending to fill them out; you find them months later dirt-stained and wrinkled under your seat; you check your bank account; you pay your bills, buy a car, break your glasses, ruin your best shoes/pants/coat; you go to the dentist, to the doctor, to a therapist; you think you’re finally okay and you realize you still need help; you find the forms, dust them off, fill them out; you send them in, make copies of your lease, your driver’s license, your cell phone bill; and then you wait all over again, but some things never change.
Food Stamps and I have a funny relationship. I’ve been on assistance, helped strangers apply for assistance, and just as soon as my life has started to look up (in terms of income), been dropped from assistance. I’ve loved my EBT card, proudly swiped it on co-op purchases and farmer’s market binges and I’ve given up on the program, screaming at the sight of new letters from the county, their demands on my life, and the dwindling amount I’ve been awarded.
Follow my series on navigating the system of public assistance in New York, Minnesota, and Vermont. In these articles I’ll discuss the power of food stamps, critique the ever-growing stigma of food stamps and other public programs, while debunking common misconceptions and uncovering valid truths. I’ll explore why they’re important, misunderstood, and ultimately only a drop in the bucket in terms of reaching a more equitable economic system.