Sunday, December 8, 2013

When EBT Wears a Tie

I remember one afternoon when I was working at the grocery store when a man came through my line with his daughter. She looked at the little yellow EBT sign on the front of the pin pad asked her father, “Do we have EBT?” His response came with a disgusted look spread across his face as he said, “Hell no, we don’t use that shit. I make…” and then proceeded to rattle off some high yearly figure, how much money he was worth, and pull a thick stack of cash from his pocket to pay for his groceries.

I started working at the store when I was 17 and didn’t quite for the last time until I left to teach high school, and during my time there, I saw people from all walks of life pass by me.  In my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I swore, as I watched people use government assistance to pay for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that I’d never have to do it. After all, I was going to college and I was certain that having a degree would ensure that I’d always have a career that would not only allow me to make a difference but that would also pay well. Well enough that I’d never have to worry about making ends meet or living paycheck to paycheck. And during these observations, I was sometimes surprised by some of the people who relied on government assistance, for they did not always match the description we sometimes have in mind of those who rely on food stamps to buy their food. Conservative media often paint the picture of those who relying government assistance as being the same people who wear their pajamas out in public, looks as though they’ve not bathed in a couple weeks, and play on their iPhones while cursing their EBT card for not working, and it’s true there are many who affirm this stereotype. We would often take bets amongst ourselves at the store when we saw people meeting this description and pushing a buggy that was overflowing at the first of the month as to what payment would be offered; we often bet EBT. Oftentimes we were right. But sometimes we would be shocked when the person paid with cash or a debit card, and I remember being stunned when I would see people well groomed and wearing business clothes pay for their groceries with EBT. People in suits and ties relying on the government to buy their dinners.

Until I became one of them.
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Sometime later—a year, maybe two—I saw that same man and his daughter come through my line and pay with an EBT card. I remembered his words that day so long ago and wondered to myself what had happened. When I started teaching at the college, I saw him on campus. He was never one of my students, though I would see him in Peer Mentoring classes and sessions while I was doing other work. Peer Mentoring: just what its name suggests and associated with Gen 101 and 102, your basic “Welcome to College” classes, seemingly college level but remedial nonetheless.

Slowly, maybe even rapidly—so much of time is lost in the remembrance thereof—I became one of those people I swore I would never be, someone who had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. Years ago I may have chuckled at the memes on Facebook and the posts touting the views that suggested those who relied on government assistance were lazy, willingly uneducated mooches. But I was married, going to college and then graduate school, and working two, sometimes three jobs, and still couldn’t make it. So I was lumped in with that stereotype, not explicitly of course, as those who knew me knew that I didn’t fit that mold— I was perhaps an outlier— but that’s the problem with lumping people into a stereotype: so often our opinions are more uneducated than are the people we are denigrating.

That’s not to say I think the system is perfect or that everyone who benefits from it does so honestly and deservedly. I know there are people who cheat the system, who lie about where and with whom they live so they can benefit, sell their EBT cards for cash. I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that some of the stereotypes applied to those who benefit from government assistance are not true, for they are. They are applicable to a percentage of the population, however large or small that percentage may be, but they are not indicative of the characteristics of everyone struggling to make ends meet.

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A friend from high school and I recently discussed therapy. She expressed the desire and need to go for depression, and I have had countless friends and colleagues over the years who have been to doctors and counselors and been placed on medication for depression and anxiety. When I got insurance through my job last year, the first thing I did was go to the doctor because of anxiety and depression. There were days when I dreaded getting out of bed, of going home, of going to work—so many scenarios that exacerbated my anxiety. I love live music, but even going to a concert could set me on edge—the large crowd, the waiting, the bustling people going to and fro— especially in small venues like bars. Larger venues like arenas and theaters aren’t any better. Sitting in traffic makes me want to crawl out my window and run, for at least I’ll be moving. So the doctor put me on Lexipro, which is great and works wonders when you have insurance and can afford it. Your focus and drive wane, but so does your anxiety. But then lose your insurance, goodbye meds.

Sarah and I joked that therapy and medication are for the rich; the rest of us have cigarettes and alcohol. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. All of which, of course, have the ability to exacerbate anxiety.
This is not, of course, to say that all people who are on government assistance smoke and drink. Some do; some don’t. But I often see posts and memes that say, “If you need EBT, you can’t afford cigarettes and alcohol,” and to an extent, I understand that sentiment. If you rely on EBT, most likely your means are quite meager, at best, and perhaps your money could be better spent elsewhere. But those who choose cigarettes and alcohol over food need help, not condemnation; guidance, not derogatory comments issued from behind a computer screen. Obviously, there are some who choose cigarettes and alcohol, or drugs, over food, but I’m not really talking about them here, not in the grand scheme of things, other than to say that they are the ones who need help, not hate. I’m talking about those who are trying, those outlying individuals who don’t really fit into the neat little condemning box people so often try to put them in. With any luck, the ACA will change that—maybe those who self medicate on tobacco and liquor can get true medication and true help. But that’s a post for a different time. 

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It’s easy to look out and judge those who aren’t as well off as you; I know because I’ve done it. But it’s amazing how being the one in need can change your views, can add a bit of empathy to the way you view the world, as you find you can relate to those who are struggling because you too have struggled. Maybe you’re struggling still. Do I think I’ll change any minds with this? Expand any views? Perhaps not. But who knows? All I know is that I often find myself thinking of that guy who was so disgusted by the thought of ever having to use an EBT card and wondering what path his life took to lead him to the one position in which he said he would never find himself. 

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