The Stigma of Living On Food Stamps

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This is the first in a blog series by Lisa Williams, Feeding Wisconsin’s blogger in residence. Lisa will be sharing stories from her lived experiences, her fight against hunger, how she faced it down, and how she won. She is now a Lead Recovery Specialist at a local non-profit helping others turn their lives around. Lisa is a current Fellow in the Ex Fabula Fellows Program

I grew up having to use food stamps to purchase food and if you think that this was all rainbows, I’m going to tell you different. Every time I went to the store to use them, I felt shame and humiliation.  

As a kid growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I remember when food stamps were issued as paper coupons. I never knew exactly how my grandmother got them, all I knew was that she would send me to the store with these coupons to buy food. 

I’m not quite sure why. Maybe she was trying to instill a sense of responsibility and work ethic within me or maybe she was ashamed to go buy things with them herself. I remember the first time using them. After getting the groceries, I came back home feeling very angry because some people I went to school were also at the store. They were using cash to buy food. I was using food stamps. I knew something was different but not quite sure what. 

Later, it got around the school that I was on food stamps and I became a joke. Right at that moment is when I felt that using food stamps was something to be ashamed of.

When my grandparents died, I had to move with my mother to Chicago. Just after I turned 18, and as I was trying to graduate from high school, I became homeless. I had to leave my mother’s home because of constant abuse and depression and so I had to apply for food stamps and cash benefits to live on my own. 

Just going to apply for these public services in the first place was a nightmare because the welfare workers made me feel like a criminal and that I didn’t deserve this aid. Suddenly that anger and fear that I had as a kid rekindled as I sat in the welfare office. It was so overwhelming because I saw the mistreatment of people and remembered that same mistreatment as a child. I felt like the “welfare queen” that was reported on the TV news, and I didn’t want to be that person, but yet there I sat in the welfare office just trying to get some help to have a very basic living. 

At this time in 1984, I qualified for $150.00 of cash assistance and about $100.00 in food stamps. This would allow me to rent a room in someone’s house for $75.00, buy necessary toiletries with the remaining money and buy food for myself with the food stamps. 

Back then, the state would send your general assistance check and food stamps to the closest assigned currency exchange center depending on where you lived in Chicago. I would have to present my welfare I.D. card that had my name and a number to pick these items up. I would try to get to this place as early as possible to avoid the long lines but sometimes it was just impossible.

The currency exchange would be packed with people trying to get their monthly benefits as well as people who were trying to get change for bus travel, laundry and other things. Sometimes I would stand in line for long periods of time and hoped that I didn’t get robbed when I walked out and thank goodness that I never did. 

As I stood in that line, I would feel so low and ashamed that I felt physically sick. But I knew I had to eat. See, I had always wanted to work but I was never allowed to work any summer jobs as a teenager. So there I was, as an 18 year old, on my own, with no home, just trying to get some basic assistance to live. 

I feel like crying right now as I think back to those days. 

Even buying food at the grocery store was another point of shame and sent me back to my days as a kid buying groceries for my grandmother. Every time I presented the food stamps to the clerk, I would get the same reaction: they would become upset and roll their eyes, just like when I was kid. 

I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just trying to buy food. 

I tried to hand them the food stamps discretely because I felt so ashamed, but that never worked. The clerk would always sigh and make a big deal out of it, like I was troubling them. 

Leaving the stores, I always felt a huge relief, not only because I got through the shame, but because I could eat, at least for a while. 

Little did I know then that these programs would positively change my life forever.

Check back in the future to see how these programs would help Lisa in her fight against hunger. 

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