We Weren't on Food Stamps — But We Should Have Been

The government shutdown and House Republicans' attempts to gut health care reform and the food stamps program may seem like an abstraction to some people, but for millions of Americans the costs are very real. Because of the shutdown, government workers will work without pay, kids who get their meals through the federal school lunch program may not receive them, and 3.6 million veterans may not get their pension payments.

I was raised in a middle-class, single-parent household. For me, the shutdown and the House's unsuccessful vote to remove 3 million people from the food stamps program (technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or "SNAP") and cut benefits for another 850,000 hits home. Although my family didn't qualify for food stamps and managed to squeak by without them, we would have benefited from that additional layer of support, as would millions of other working families. But in August, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, where I lived as a teenager, said that single moms don't need to rely on food stamps because they can "do very, very well for themselves." This constant barrage of attacks against families like mine makes no sense, and hearing these comments never fails to remind me of my own story.

My parents divorced in 1992, when I was eight years old, leaving my mom with many questions. Where would she raise my brother and I? What would happen if she lost her job? Where would her kids go to school? How would she pay for rent, our clothes, and our meals? Indeed, these are the kinds of questions food stamp recipients and many other vulnerable Americans ask themselves everyday.

My older brother was accepted into a prestigious high school in New York City soon after the divorce. However, because the high school refused to accommodate my brother's disability, my mom decided to relocate to central New Jersey, where the cost of living would be somewhat lower and my brother could attend a good high school without difficulty.

For a family with the means, this might have been an easy decision. But for a single mother working as a secretary on a $21,000 salary, it was a very difficult one. Commuting to Manhattan from central New Jersey by train cost about $300 per month in the mid-1990s and my mom says the trip would take nearly two hours to complete each way door-to-door. Even more, my mom had two hungry teenage sons to raise at home, costing her $60 per week in food, plus clothes and school supplies.

While my mom's secretary salary didn't qualify her for food stamps, it didn't make those times any less trying for our family. After six years of commuting to New York and raising my older brother and I in the process, she owed $60,000 in credit card debt. "I would go to the bank and check on it, and at times I had three dollars," my mom told me this week. "I'd bring my lunch to work, or at times I'd skip lunch because I didn't have the money."

Even today, most single mothers are employed full-time and don't receive any government benefits. Only a quarter receive food stamps and most aren't in poverty. But being "middle-class" doesn't make the process of feeding your family any easier. "I remember one Christmas, we were going into Pathmark [a grocery store], and I was just panicky about whether my credit card would go through," my mom said. "It was horrible feeling like that. Living from paycheck to paycheck and barely making it, and being fearful of losing your job."

The food stamps program won't be affected during this month's shutdown, but at least two states are requiring recipients to work or attend job training to receive benefits, a move that advocates for the poor have called "punitive to the most vulnerable people." Families who benefit from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are in even worse shape. If the current government shutdown continues for an extended period, 9 million low-income pregnant women and new moms may not receive the nutritional support they need to care for their children, driving their families deeper into poverty and putting the health of our youngest citizens at risk. And under the Republican plan to cut food stamps, the vast majority of those affected will be low-income working families and low-income seniors, as well as low-income veterans and children who receive free school lunches because of their enrollment in the program. Even though SNAP rolls are declining and the program lifts millions of children out of poverty each year, the program has repeatedly been on Congress' chopping block.

Through sheer will and a bit of luck, my mom managed to become a success story without the supplemental support that SNAP provides to most families who receive it. Thanks to the help of student loans, my brother and I went on to pursue higher education, ultimately attaining a Ph.D. and a law degree between us. But as attacks against existing government programs like SNAP continue in a difficult economy, I'm fearful that more families a little worse off than mine won't be as fortunate, and low-income families teetering on the edge of poverty or worse will fall into a deeper crisis.

In fact, evidence bears out what Jay Z recently described as "the real problem" in America, which is that "there's no middle class." Wealth inequality has reached levels higher than they were in the 1920s, making "middle class" is a misnomer, and it's worse now than it was for my family almost 20 years ago. If we can't support our single parents — the ones working tirelessly to eek out a living and give their children a better life — I'm not sure there's much of a middle class in our country's future.

After talking to my mom about that time, what most amazes me was how little I remember of her struggles growing up. Was I just a particularly inattentive, self-interested kid? Like most teenagers, I probably was. But then I realized something else: out of pride and protection, my mom never shared with my brother and I any hint of her struggles until much later. So, more often than not, we got the clothes and the things we wanted. It was my mom's way of saying, "Everything's alright," even when it wasn't. "I never wanted the both of you to know how bad it was," she said. "That was a burden that children should not know about."

Unless we as a nation choose a more compassionate path — supporting middle-income families struggling to get by and lifting low-income Americans out of poverty — more single parents will need to protect a secret they shouldn't even have in the first place.