The holidays — it’s a time to indulge on your favorite foods and snacks. Popcorn and cookie tins, chocolates, a smorgasbord of candies are enough to make sugarplums dance in your head.

Unless you’re a self-respecting parent on food stamps and WIC.

Christmas cookies in a stocking

Is it ethically right to use food stamps on Christmas goodies?

And that’s exactly what has happened this year for my wife and I.

Usually, we’re all about family traditions and the food that comes with it. For us, it’s the customary three-flavor popcorn, chocolate oranges, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and the variety of our favorite candies.

But this year, we’ve got a conundrum: all of these things can be had… with food stamps.

I’ve highlighted it before: WIC coupons force you to buy healthier stuff that will allow your family to eat better. With food stamps, not so much. Basically, if it can be consumed at home, you can buy it.

IBC Rootbeer? Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Oreos, toffee and soda pop? Ask and ye shall receive.

I understand that the government basically tells you, “Use the food stamps at your discretion.” If I want to use all my money on junk food, I can, and some people do that. But I wonder: is it ethically responsible to use food stamps on Christmas candies? Should I feel guilty about buying that traditional popcorn tin or whatever on Uncle Sam’s (and taxpayer’s) dime? Am I “using the system” to fill my two daughter’s stockings this year?

I want to know what you think. There’s almost nothing that can offend me, so I want pure, unrestrained thoughts about this. It’ll be interesting to see people’s answers.

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We all have one of those nights.

It’s the end of the week, you’re tired, lots of things went wrong and you just don’t feel like cooking or making yourself dinner. If you’re lucky, friends or family members will go out to dinner with you, and you can relax the stresses of the week away at your favorite restaurant.

For us, Friday was one of those nights. I hadn’t seen my wife or kids in their awake state since the previous Sunday because of grad school homework. My wife, who currently is a stay-at-home mom, was at her wits’ end and really didn’t feel like cooking, let alone anything else. But you can’t just stop and run out to dinner like you did when you were childless and “free”. Little mouths still need to be fed. Tiny bodies still need to be nourished.

Pizza

I'm definitely grateful to be able to "splurge" on at least on thing with food stamps. Photo by Nick Newman/Arizona State University.

So what are you supposed to do? It’s hard enough when you’re married, going back to school and have kids. It’s near-impossible to think of something to eat outside the home when Uncle Sam’s dinner menu consists of only things that can be prepared at home.

Thankfully, there are places like Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N Bake Pizza, however few and far between they may be.

Papa Murphy’s had been a family favorite growing up, and it was much cheaper (and tastier) than having to purchase a pizza from one of the other national or local companies. We had heard through the grapevine that there were stores down in Arizona and that they indeed took food stamps. It wasn’t until that night that we decided to actually find out if that was true.

We packed our two princesses in the minivan and made the 10-mile trip to the nearest store, and we were so happy to see the food stamps logo in the window. I walked in with my two-year-old, ordered my pizza, and let my daughter watch the workers put the pepperoni, cheese and “red sauce” on.

There were no negative looks from the employees there, no questioning about the legality of my card: the manager made the pizza, chatted with my daughter about what different things were and gave her a sticker. That was that.

The look from my wife said it all when we arrived back home: the tired lines in her face, the bags under her eyes. But there was a gratitude there as well as she sat down on the floor to play with the kids while I cooked the pizza. We got to have a “fun” meal with the kids without having to break the bank to go out to eat. And cleanup would be easy.

Sure, getting pizza probably isn’t the best way to use the money Uncle Sam is giving to feed my family. But even when you’re a cash-strapped father of two who is attempting to obtain a grad degree, you’ve got to enjoy the moment sometime, right?

——————-

Editor’s note: For a future blog post, I’d like to give ideas to readers about more items like this one: Do you know of places that someone wouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to use food stamp money, and yet they can? Please let me know by e-mailing me or contacting me through Twitter or Facebook. In addition to that, if you’ve got stories regarding “loopholes” in the system — both positives and negatives about using the loopholes in  food stamps and WIC to someone’s advantage — please let me know.

And as always, send me in your stories or stories of those you love who are/were on WIC or food stamps. I don’t care if the person is blatantly using the system, or is down on their luck and benefitting from the government’s generousity for a small time. Positive or negative, everyone  has a story that deserves to be told here.


It was like she was sizing me up, looking first into my eyes. Down, then up, then down again, as I presented her with latest WIC check for both of my children. She asked for my driver’s license. Down, up then down.

The mean cashier

This is what I felt I encountered at the store as I presented a WIC check to the cashier with no children in tow.

Was there something on my shoes? Was my fly unzipped? Did I look too crazy with my BYU football jersey on? I didn’t know what was so wrong with me, but the unease in the air was thick. I was pretty sure she didn’t think I actually had kids, or that the checks were my family’s.  I knew I was right when she handed me back the checks.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you check out,” she said.

It was 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the local grocery store we go to since we realized we won’t make it through the night without milk for the baby. My wife and I were exhausted from playing hard with our kids and enjoying a day where grad school didn’t take me away from something. We knew we had to get more food, but my wife really didn’t feel like going. So I tried to be the good husband, and offered to do it.

“It’s easy,” my wife told me. “Just get exactly what it says on the check. Make sure you look for the “WIC approved food” stickers. And when you get to the cashier, sort your food by check, and hand the check over. ”

There was no mention of any need for any kind of ID, because she’s never had to show any before. So I picked up and left.

——

And there I was: I can tell the cashier lady doesn’t think these checks are mine. I tell her to look at my ID — my last name matches my kids. I was just getting some things for my family.

“Where’s your wife?” she asked, as the interrogation continued. “Why couldn’t she have come and done this? It would have been so much easier.”

A check from the WIC program

Here's an example of a WIC check.

I was told I needed the little WIC book we were given, which has both of our signatures at the back, so the cashier could check them. I would have to go back home to get it, then re-shop for everything in my basket, since they couldn’t just set my shopping cart off to the side for 10 minutes. There went 45 minutes of me bumbling through this place, searching for those “WIC-approved food” stickers.

I knew I shouldn’t have left home without it, but I had never seen my wife use the booklet, nor anyone else when I went to stores. I thought for an instant: could I be getting said no to just because I’m a man with WIC checks? It this sexist profiling? Was a a “victim” of prejudice?

Just then, I turned around because I remembered the person behind me also had WIC checks. She was a woman, no kids in tow. No WIC booklet. She was out the door with her stuff in 3 minutes.

Sure, she could have been a “regular” that the cashier had known for a while. But that didn’t matter. My anger was boiling within me. I decided to leave to get my booklet and then patronize another grocery store, since this one wasn’t holding my stuff for me.

But when I got home, I had an idea. I wondered if my experience was something I would only have at this store, or whether it was widespread. So the first thing I had to do is go back to this original store and simply try another cashier.

This time, I only took 10 minutes to get my items and find another cashier. She took my checks and started scanning my items. Had I not produced the WIC booklet for her, I don’t think she would have even asked. The checkout lasted about four minutes, and I was on my way, but not before I got a glare from that first cashier, which I combated with an icy stare of my own. And yes, my wife was ticked.

There was no doubt in my mind that this woman had automatically assumed that because I was a man, and because I had no kids in tow with me, that I obviously had to be lying about my WIC checks. They had to be stolen because men just don’t come in with these. Men don’t do these nice things for their wives.

And now I’m wondering what you think out there — Women, have you ever had your husband/father of your child go to the store to get WIC items? What was his experience like? In your opinion, was what I did a crazy thing to do, or is it perfectly Kosher for a man to do WIC shopping? Men: has an experience like this ever happened to you? What did you do about it? I can’t wait to hear from all of you!

Like always, you can contact me via Twitter, Facebook, this comment board, or e-mail. Hope to hear from you soon.


Imagine this: you’re a young mother of two small children, and your spouse decides that graduate school is the best option for the long-term prosperity of your family. So you move a thousand miles away from home to start the academic life. Once there, your spouse’s school says it’s not a good idea for students to work and study, and it’ll be much better academically to focus only on that part of life. You apply for Medicaid, food stamps, and WIC.

You decide to work from home for a company in your home state to try to help make ends meet. Your employer would appreciate if you worked as many hours as you can, but there’s a catch — in order to qualify for the aforementioned programs, you need to be under a certain financial level, and if you work more than 16 hours a week, you won’t qualify for anything.

So what do you do? Do you work more hours to get company insurance, only to have it deducted out of your paycheck? Or do you work fewer hours, be completely taken care of and live off the government?

This is Susan’s dilemma, and thousands of hard-working Americans go through the same decisions.

*Susan (name changed to protect source’s identity) chose choice B, after moving to the Midwest for her husband’s medical schooling. Working for a company from back home means her insurance would be out-of-network, and would not cover everything. On Medicaid, any medical issue gets covered 100 percent, with no cost to her family.

“It’s hard to want to work extra hours and be away from my kids when by not working more,  I get better care,” Susan said. “It’s tough. What would you choose? Work 40+ hours as a cashier to earn minimum wage and lose benefits and food, or live off assistance?”

Even though the decision has been made, she said she wrestles with the “ethical dilemma” daily.

“I know that it’s not long term, and it’s been a great blessing for us as we make our way through school.” Susan said.

How do you feel about this choice? Does it infuriate you, knowing people “play the system” on your tax dollars, when the person could be working more, or do you sympathize with the choice? If you’ve ever been in this situation, tell us what you did and why. How has life gone for you since that decision, assuming you’re not on government assistance. We want to hear from you.

What’s for dinner, Uncle Sam?

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

Fast-forward a month, and I’d say my family and I are starting to get accustomed to life in “poverty”. We got approved for state-funded health insurance, food stamps, and WIC. We’re living off that and student loans, and we thank our lucky stars every single day that we got approved. I’ve got a TV, but no connection. I watch what little football I have time for on my basic internet connection (thank you, Cox, for free ESPN3!).

Sounds like the hard-knock life… until you see what’s on my table.

Uncle Sam's dinner

These are only the dry goods from our first food stamp purchase, so you’re not seeing freezer goods, or what WIC so blessedly gives us each month. Needless to say, we were able to stock up this month.

Of course, my sale-shopping, coupon-cutting wife helps us get more than the average person does. And it also doesn’t hurt that the government back-dates your monthly disbursement to the time you apply, not the time you actually are approved. So although August was already over, we were awarded food money for the majority of August. That money had to be spent by our next disbursement date. Although any surplus does roll over, if you have a CONSISTENT surplus or excess of funds, the government will decrease the allotment.

I can’t express in words how truly blessed we are, and in some ways, I kind of feel guilty for basically living off Uncle Sam. I’m going from eating Ramen and PB&J every day, to actually being able to eat “normal people” food again, all while going to grad school (we even can afford the occasional steak), lucky us. 🙂

But in all seriousness, I am so grateful for these programs. Because of it, my wife was able to feel like a good mom and celebrate our second daughter’s first birthday with a cake bought at the grocery store bakery, complete with decorative icing. For the rest of my life, I don’t think I’ll ever complain about taxes, knowing there’s always someone else like me who needs help to provide for their family while that short time.


My mother told me a story when I was young and many of you might have heard it as well: she called it “Bangalee”.  Bangalee was a critter who was very good at keeping things clean — his room, his home and himself.  His siblings struggled with cleanliness, which was not a good thing, because Bangalee and family lived next to another creature called “the Grunk”. The Grunk was a monster that ate garbage, so this was a problem for the messy family when the creature came to feast at their castle.  Bangalee quickly explained to his siblings that the Grunk was coming to eat all the trash in their home and showed his siblings how to clean everything up, including themselves.

This was merely a way to teach me to pick up my toys and remember to brush my teeth. This is a method my mother — now a grandmother — used with my daughter as well, though she puts a more exciting and fun twist on the story.  “Bangalee” is one of my daughter’s favorite bedtime stories.

—-

I thought I was doing a good deed by taking both of my daughters to the Department of Economic Security office so my wife could have time for herself. After all, it couldn’t be that hard to have someone look at my papers, see my application, and get us started in the process for food-stamps and government insurance — could it?

My wife completed the application online, so all I really needed to do was drop off the required supplementary documents. With two young children in tow, I drove the short distance to my assigned DES office.  After such an amazing experience at the WIC office, I was surprised by the dilapidated appearance of the building.

While the line was much shorter than I anticipated, the place was filthy.  Flies buzzed through the warm, stuffy room where badly groomed and unkempt citizens waited for their name to be called.  I saw lots of trash and dirt — not just Arizona desert dust — on the white linoleum floor. Not knowing where to start, I just stood in what I thought to be the line until someone pointed out that I had to “sign in” in order to be in line. I wished I could have those minutes of my life back.

I sat down on the chairs after I wrote my name on the paper. I looked around, and had a feeling this wasn’t the quick, “Here are my papers, please stamp them, thank you for your time” visit I had expected. An older man who reeked of alcohol and cigarettes and seemed like he had lost as many teeth as he has plots of hair sat in one corner and talked to the DES employee at the counter as if he’d known her all his life. He said he knew this system better than she did, as he had been on it since his mid-twenties. He looked able-bodied enough to me.

There was a an older woman with who had the “rough around the edges” look — tattoos, body piercings, dirt caked on clothes and skin — and also smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. She talked to another about why it wasn’t necessary to get a GED when the government will take care of her. She was getting impatient and wanted her food stamps.

Two men who looked my age or younger walked in, saw the line, and complained about not wanting to wait any longer for food stamps, because they had something better to do. They needed to get to the bar. Never once did they mention finding a job.

The flies kept buzzing. The filth kept accumulating. Time kept going. The temperature kept rising. And that’s when my oldest daughter piped up and said, “Daddy, the Grunk is going to eat this place. Can we go yet?”

As I tried to hide the embarrassment on my face I noticed a well-kept Hispanic woman a few seats down from me, who also had a young child with her. As she spoke to the DES officer through her limited English, I learned she was a single mother with multiple children. She smiled at my children and I, and I did the same back. I felt so out of place here. I tried not to judge when the toothless, smelly strangers tried to greet my two-year old with grimy hands placed over hers. But here I was. I needed the help of the government just as much as they did.

The woman behind the counter caught my attention as she barked out orders to the man on the other side of the glass partition separating her from the rest of us. I hadn’t expected such a harsh reception from someone getting paid to assist me.  She was just as abrupt with me when she called my name and I dragged my two — now sweaty —little girls up to the counter.

As I explained to the woman that this was my first time here, I handed her the papers my wife had sent with me.  The gruff woman softened somewhat as I explained our situation, telling me that my daughters were cute and that bringing them with me was a pretty decent “proof of identity” (one of the specifics needed to obtain food-stamp assistance).

It was a brief encounter. My time in contact with the woman behind the counter measured only a few minutes, but it was in such stark contrast to the atmosphere of the WIC office. I walked out of the building bewildered.

How could I be stooping to the same level as the people I saw in that room?  People whose clothing was in decent condition as far as wear goes, but was dirty and smelled bad. People whose teeth were missing and covered in slime.  People who, though here for food-stamps, could afford Blackberries and iPods and PSPs and openly spoke about how much easier it is to be on government assistance than to attempt to live a life just over the “qualification line,” where living paycheck to paycheck is the norm as people work as hard as they can and barely make more money that they pay in bills.

How is that even right? Why are these people here instead of working? Then I thought of the single mother: she’s the kind of person this program was set up for. She’s the kind of person who eventually will make it off welfare and provide what her family needs from her.

Only a week before, I had been the one judged at that Fry’s grocery store. Now, as I left the office with my two girls in tow, earning a graduate degree and living in a modest home, I was the one judging. Something needed to be changed.

—————

Editor’s Note: I’m still looking for people who would like me to tell their story. I’d like to interview you, your friends or your family members who have been or are still on the food stamp or WIC programs. I want to hear the stories, whether you’re someone who only briefly had to use this system and found it to be a blessing, as well as those who feel it’s easier to use government assistance instead of working. Each and every side needs to be heard.

If you know of someone, or you yourself would like to talk, please contact me. I’d love to get someone else’s story out there.

First impressions

Posted: September 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

It was a long drive — 35 minutes — with two children, across town to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office.

While it wasn’t something we had planned on doing, jobs just weren’t coming to us, despite our efforts. We needed help. It had to be done. But I can’t say it was something I was happy about.

This uneasiness was something that I think was bred into me from childhood. My great-grandparents somehow made it through the Great Depression raising multiple kids on potato farms in southeastern Idaho. One grandfather worked as a copy machine repairman, raising 7 children in Idaho Falls, Idaho. My dad left my brother and me with my mom in Utah for weeks at a time so he could earn better wages as a nurse in Los Angeles — all so he could pay cash for law school.

And here I am: My wife and I have bachelor’s degrees, and here I am, asking the Arizona government to help me feed my family. My faith teaches me to be self-reliant.

And as I park in front of the WIC office, I feel like I’ve failed my family, myself and my God.

A list of WIC-approved foods

The WIC program makes sure children get the healthy food they deserve.

Thankfully, the woman behind the counter flashed an angelic smile. I wasn’t expecting this, given the conditions of the neighborhood around the office. But I was totally wrong. There were toys for all different ages of children waiting to be played with. There were posters everywhere with information on how to help your kid establish healthy eating habits. The aura of the place just exuded peace, even with at least 6 different children scurrying around as tired parents waited their turn to see a WIC officer.

It was a comforting experience. It didn’t feel like people were judging us at all. They didn’t treat us like deadbeat parents, but instead, cheerfully told us that we qualified, and explained what we needed to do and how to use the coupons. Because my child was technically a “preemie”, they set up an appointment with a nutritionist to discuss our baby’s growth and development. When would I ever be able to afford that in the “real world”?

I learned that WIC is not merely a place for parents to receive food “freebies”, but it is an amazing program that makes sure that underprivileged children have access to healthy foods and not just cheap crap that feeds, but doesn’t nourish. We were given these “coupons”, which are shaped more like a check, and have specifics on what exactly I could “buy” for my children. The list was interesting: 100% whole wheat bread, whole grain cereals, low-fat milk and whole milk for infants, baby formula, cheese, eggs and fruits and veggies. Of course, my favorite part of it was looking at the juice: two 64-ounce containers of any 100% juice. Bye-bye, Great Value apple juice cocktail. Hello, Minute Maid and Simply Orange!

WIC Family

Where there's WIC, there's hope.

Of course, the government doesn’t tell you to go bonkers. But it’s encouraging to know Uncle Sam knows what I know: the health of our nation and our society depends on the next generation. We won’t have a next generation if we feed our kids high-fructose corn syrup in everything they consume.

And that’s what made the experience all the better. It felt like a safe house for financially struggling parents, complete with all the “how-t0” pamphlets I could ever dream of. While I still feel a little sick at the idea that I am “one of those people” who use the system, I felt liberated. We were going to be okay.

I saw my tax dollars at work, and for once, they were being put to good use.

Labels

Posted: September 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

It was a normal 115-degree August day in Arizona as I parked our family minivan in the parking lot of a nearby Fry’s grocery store. While my wife and daughters had been here for a month, I stayed in Salt Lake City to earn a few more paychecks before coming to the desert. I assumed they were getting along fine with the pay I was bringing in, but I was shocked when I looked at the cupboard: they’d been living off Mac ‘n cheese, Top Ramen and tuna for a month.

It was time to buy “real” food at the store.

You have to understand something about my wife: she’s ridiculously frugal. Our bucks were stretching just fine, but she didn’t think it was good enough. She’s always thinking about how many diapers this much money could buy, or how many times my two-year-old can eat if Juli doesn’t have breakfast. It’s abjectly insane.

So here I was, united with my little family, attempting to recover from the blast furnace that is the Arizona summer. We went through aisle after aisle, seeking to replenish our paltry pantry storage.

We gathered the basics and headed off to the register to be checked out by a cashier. She was an older woman who looked grandmotherly enough, but she had a rough edge to her. And before I could even whip out my debit card, she spewed out the words with contempt, “Is this for WIC or food stamps?”

I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. We had considered going on welfare if my wife and I couldn’t find a good job, but for now, my hard-earned money was enough. But for this woman, it didn’t matter — apparently being in your late twenties, married, with two kids under the age of three was enough to assume that we didn’t make enough money.

We all judge, assume and profile — even if it’s just for a quick second in our mind. But what made that lady assume that this young family — an educated, well-groomed, polite couple with two smiley, sunshiny girls — was undeniably using Uncle Sam for food assistance? We had never experienced this before in Utah, the land where it’s normal to have couples our age have twice the amount of kids as us and single-handedly take them all to the grocery store. Even in Provo (where Brigham Young University is), where the locals jokingly call the Married Student Housing complex “Rabbit Hill”, we never got this.

I’ll never know what that cashier saw in our family that made her infer things about our economic situation. But that day, I realized how deceiving appearances truly can be. If I’d only known I’d get another lesson in that all too soon.

Reasons

Posted: September 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

Growing up in a middle-class family in the Salt Lake City suburbs, life was somewhat easy for me. The son of a lawyer/medical clinic director and a schoolteacher, I don’t think I worried much about what we had or didn’t have. Life was good.

Things continued on that path after high school. While we had to bleed, sweat and scratch for every nickel and dime to put myself and my wife through school, it still didn’t feel any different from growing up. We worked. We studied. We prayed like heck our dollars would stretch. But life was still good.

Enter our current situation: I left my job to get an MA from Arizona State and packed up my wife, kids and everything we had to head down south to the Valley of the Sun. Once we got there, good paying jobs were hard to come by, and we felt this “spiritual” pull that my wife needed to stay home with the kids anyway.

So here we are: going to school, living in a rented house 45 miles away from campus in a little town that’s not even in the same county as Phoenix, and attempting to live off student loans and  government assistance.

This blog seeks to look at the diverse stories of those who use the government assistance programs, namely Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Hopefully, if I can get people to talk to me, I will tell their stories — the ones who genuinely need help as well as those who misuse the system — on this blog. In addition, I will also be blogging about personal experiences my family and I have while enrolled in these programs.

Being on assistance is not a joking matter, and I’m not doing this just as an “experiment”, as has happened before with bloggers, and other journalists. I’m doing this because I think the public needs to know what goes on and how those who don’t know how to get help, can.