In 1990, I was 31 years old and had been married for 11 years to my high school sweetheart (my first attempt at trying to get a man to meet his own potential despite his lack of interest in the whole project!). We lived in a large single home in the suburbs across the river from Philadelphia in South Jersey, with two kids and two dogs. By that year, I realized that the man I married was NOT someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and I told him to leave in March. He finally did so that June, and I got my friend’s sister and her toddler to move in as my roommate. She worked days, I worked nights, so perfect, right? Not so much.
Anyway, one thing led to another and I found myself in the unacceptable position of needing to apply for public benefits – food stamps, welfare and Medicaid – for myself and my children. My father took me there to fill out the application (no internet in 1990, sadly) despite my distaste of the whole idea (I had my own prejudices about ‘assistance’), because I was entitled to it. He was right – I wasn’t able to work because I was recuperating from surgery and my estranged husband (in rehab after a drunk-driving accident that caused him some serious frontal lobe damage) wasn’t working either, leaving us with no actual income.
I was way more fortunate than the majority of women in similar circumstances – single parents without financial support from the noncustodial parent – because my parents were fairly well-off. In addition, due to a legal settlement, and a bargain ‘fixer-upper’ of a house, I had no mortgage payment. Unfortunately, this did not mean I lived there for free – real estate taxes, utilities, cable and such put my monthly expenses conservatively around $1,500 before food. Adding groceries to that total for just myself and two young kids (7 and 10) brought that total to around $2,000.
When I was approved by the state for assistance, I was granted Medicaid for myself and my children (limited to those providers who agreed to accept the meager fees paid for their services) along with cash assistance/welfare and food stamps. The monthly cash payment I received was $475, and in food stamps, $256, about 30% of my monthly bills and about half of my grocery expenses. Of course, those grocery expenses include more than just food.
The non-edible things purchased at the grocery store are (in large part) also necessities and should be included in the benefits. Who among us can manage without laundry products, paper products, feminine hygiene products, health and beauty aids and cleaning products? How much of the average American’s grocery budget includes non-edibles like toilet paper, tissues, etc.?
When I pointed this out to the welfare worker I was assigned to, I was told that this was the purpose of the cash benefit. How I was supposed to pay my bills after I used my cash benefit for my non-edible groceries was not her problem. The only reason I wasn’t forced to sell my home in order to live off the proceeds was because of my parents’ financial support.
It is long over due for the food assistance system to be updated to reflect that actual needs of real families, including the fact that the least expensive food items are also those least healthy for us to eat. Fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins are significantly more expensive than the non-nutritious prepared foods available in the middle aisles of most grocery stores, and produce is almost nonexistent in food deserts where the only ‘grocery’ store is a dollar store.
Once again, we have to ask ourselves – if people who work 40 hours or more every week for a minimum wage job require government assistance for food, housing, healthcare and other necessities, why aren’t their employers required to raise their pay to a living wage?
Taxpayers shouldn’t be required to supplement poverty-level wages, to make workers whole; employers should be forced to provide a minimum living wage that is above the poverty level. Put the burden for this disparity where it belongs; on the companies that pay too little. Republicans (along with Sinema and Manchin) who refuse to address this do not deserve their place in power. Period.