This was another one of my Yahoo Voices articles where the trolls lingered.
Shaming Poverty: One Person’s Stereotypes Leads to Personal Humiliation While Buying Food
Myths Concerning Unemployed, Poor Persist Despite Prolonged Great Recession
November 3rd, 2013
Saturday October 26th. After working all week at my holiday temp job, I go to my neighborhood Dollar General to buy some milk and a couple frozen dinners for work. Earlier this month I stocked up on groceries, knowing my work schedule offered little time for cooking, reducing my food stamp total to less than $15 for the rest of the month.
At checkout, my total exceeds my remaining balance by about three dollars — nothing major — until the clerk asked me a question no one asked me since I was six years old buying a soda from my allowance. “Do you have money to pay for that?” she snarled unapologetically.
What? I thought to myself, keenly aware she was talking about just three dollars and change.
Caught off guard, I replied yes simply, showing her my debit card while she scowled over the split payment transaction. Leaving the store, the humiliation set in. Despite my professional dress and demeanor, this woman assumed (incorrectly) that I had no way to pay the three dollar balance owed, something no one ever communicated to me since I was a child buying small items from my allowance. Across dozens of mixed food and non food purchases at the same store, my capacity to pay for the non food items never came into question — until this purchase.
So why assume I could not pay — especially in face of my clean, well-cared for clothes and professional conduct?
The answer has to be rooted in persisting stereotypes about the poor, working poor, andunemployed. Despite the length of this Great Recession and high unemployment numbers, especially here in Johnstown where the unemployment rate in August was 8.7% (1.4% higher than the national average, and 1% above the Pennsylvania average), our culture still equates poverty with laziness, criminal activity, mental illness, and drug addiction — none of which apply to me, something self evident in my prolific work for Yahoo Voices and the seventeen editions of my twonovels, all self-published within a span of just eleven months.
On the flip side, my white cane leads to the assumption by those with little experience with the differently abled that my sight loss is sufficient for me to be dependent on federal disability payments. Few people realize that the federal definition of “legally blind” is 20/200 vision — compared with Pennsylvania’s 20/70 threshold which my 20/80 vision meets.
That is to say, I’m too blind to drive and too blind to work in industrial settings (where most of the few local jobs are) — but not blind enough to receive cash assistance from the federal government, Instead, the assistance I’ve received comes through Pennsylvania’s vocational rehabilitation program offering me some adaptive technologies (such as my white cane, large ruled paper, and a special desk lamp) designed to help me re-enter the work place.
No matter how you cut it, the words cut sharply at my pride. For I understand that while abuse of unemployment assistance, food stamps, and other programs designed to support the poor happens, the number of people who actually fit the stereotypes are very small — despite what politicians may claim. Most people receiving food stamps do so because the alternative is starving, not because they do not want to buy their own food.
Given a fair chance, most people receiving government assistance would prefer not to — regardless of age. Ask anyone struggling to scrape by on social security if they would rather be living off saved money in a pension or IRA — or off social security and nearly every person would prefer the former. Ask any long term unemployed person (such as myself) if she or he would rather be working or trying to make do through the help of others and nearly every person would rather be working. As any person working for minimum wage and not able to feed her or his family despite working full time if she or he wants food stamps and you will also hear a resounding “No!”
Americans do not want entitlements. Americans want to pay their own way. We want jobs and living wages. We want to support ourselves. And we want the system to be fair — rewarding hard work, education, and good choices instead of bad choices. For it is truly ironic that a heroine addict on the street readily gets disability assistance from the federal government — something that person chose to do — but my sight loss and hearing loss only affords me scorn and shame.
We can and must do better.