The first time, we weren't in as good a financial situation as we are now and we relied on food stamps, fuel assistance, and unemployment insurance, which allowed us to just cover our mortgage and bills. Without those supports, we would have definitely lost our house and could not have afforded oil to heat us in the winter. It was demoralizing to say the least, especially since so many of my friends were moving in to the 1% (ok, maybe not the 1% but still, it felt like everyone was moving up, buying huge houses and taking great vacations and there we were..broke.)
But I came away that first time with a few new insights:
1) I spent most of my entire life (from age 13) working. As a friend pointed out, I have been paying into the system for almost 30 years, and not just unemployment. My taxes support safety networks like these. It's there for a reason, and now it was my turn to use it. No shame in that. I was getting a return on my investment, so to speak. That helped me get perspective.
2) There is always someone worse off than me, so I needed to quit complaining. I was absolutely terrified to use the food stamp debit card. The shame was more than I could bear. One day, at the supermarket, the woman in front of me was in line with her grandson. She had to put back the grapes because she didn't have enough money left on her food stamp card to pay for them. That's when I realized I needed to get over myself already. I had a lot of money available to me on that card and I was lucky to have it. I needed to suck it up and get over my pride. Food is not a luxury. (Still, I avoided the supermarket where they always asked "Credit or debit?" because I had to answer, and it wasn't either of those. Seriously-did they have to do that? The card machine already asked me..silently. Now you have to make me say it out loud????)
3) There are a lot of very judgmental people out there. And they really, really need to stop. My husband and I work hard (fine, hard-ish) and don't have an extravagant lifestyle, but we made a good living and enjoyed ourselves sometimes. But at this one point in time, we needed help. If you saw me use my food stamp card and then get in my Highlander, why are you assuming that I am scamming the system? I bought that car (used, and with cash, if that matters) 3 years before when things were fine. What was I supposed to do now, walk to the supermarket as pennance for needing help? Sell it and buy a more “food-stamp” appropriate car? You see someone use food stamps and then get in a Mercedes? Relax yourself. Maybe it was someone else’s. Maybe it was bought a long time ago. You don’t know, so stop judging. It very well could be you next time.
4) Getting help-ANY kind of help-from the government is extremely difficult and complicated. If I hadn't had a friend who was on a very low income for a few years and knew what to do, I would have been absolutely lost. I would not have known about fuel assistance, health insurance assistance, and that I could get a low rate on my utilities. I wouldn't have known where or how to get these things. Then, the forms. The forms to fill out for all of this were endless and complicated. I spent hours and hours on the phone, often getting nowhere. Many times, I needed to be very aggressive in order to get things processed or correct mistakes THEY made, something other people may not have had the knowledge or confidence to do. I am probably considered well-educated and knowledgeable, and while I understand that there needs to be a rigorous process to make sure people really do need benefits, this was bizarrely complicated and difficult. If I had trouble understanding how things worked, I can't imagine how daunting this could be for someone without my background. This time, we are running into bureaucracy with unemployment insurance that is maddening. But like I said, we aren't desperate so we can absorb the nonsense and delays. Other families might not be so lucky. Oh, and given how difficult it is, I would suggest that gaming the system is also pretty difficult, no matter what Rush Limbaugh would like you to believe.
So here we are again. Not fun, but thanks to savings and severance, we haven't needed any assistance aside from unemployment yet, and I am hopeful that we won't. That said, should we need to, I would not hesitate to apply for those things. They are there for people just like us. All that nasty rhetoric about welfare moms, etc is not my experience, and doesn't seem to be the norm. People will always abuse the system-but we shouldn't punish everyone else. We should make the system better, more streamlined, and less harrowing. We should be feeding people who need to eat, not holding them hostage because you can't get your way from that mean old president.
***Addendum: I have gotten a lot of response to this post. I want to add that that whole experience was very surreal. We live in a fairly upscale town in Massachusetts, relatively speaking. There is a house around the corner from me selling for 1.2 million dollars. Living among millionaires and collecting food stamps. How did THAT happen? Driving to school events surrounded by Mercedes's and BMW's, hoping no one knew our secret, that we were barely holding on, that my mom bought the kids' Christmas presents, that we used "welfare". Hoping no one knew how grateful I was that we qualified for free kindergarten for our older daughter so we only had to pay for pre-school for our littlest , and then wondering how on earth we would be able to do that. Meanwhile, friends were going on awesome vacations I knew would never happen for us for years to come, even if Alex got a job soon. We had a lot of catching up to do...