Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently spent a week living on food stamps, an event that prompted a number of HuffPost readers to write in and tell us about their own experiences receiving nutritional aid. In the past week, we've published your tips and advice for people living on a modest grocery budget, and your stories of how the food stamp program does and doesn't work. We also published a letter from "Margo," a reader in Kentucky who explained how hard it is to "take a step up the ladder" and move away from food stamps when the system cuts you off from help as soon as you manage to earn or save a small subsistence.
Shortly after we ran Margo's letter, we heard from "Judy," another reader who asked that we not use her real name. Judy is in her forties, lives in Pennsylvania, and is a former county worker and mother of three. She told us about her own mother, a former nurse who now receives food stamps. In Judy's letter, which we've printed excerpts of below, she talks about Mitt Romney, welfare abuse, and the importance of monthly treats like a pack of cookies. She also says that Margo made a good point about the way the system keeps people dependent. "Once you make even a dollar over, SNAP will be pulled from you before you even have a chance to succeed or put money in the bank," Judy writes. "You will never get a better apartment or pay off bills accumulated from the situation, and you will be in an endless circle."
If you'd like to share your experience with food stamps, send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some letters are edited for length and clarity.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom most of her 20-year marriage. She became an LPN [licensed practical nurse] at 42, after her divorce. At 52 she became an RN [registered nurse]. At 65, she had a stroke. She never had a chance to build any savings. What little she had, we put into an irrevocable trust to pay for her funeral when she passes. We moved her to an over-65 apartment that was cheaper than where she had been living. But until there was a place for her, we had to use her credit card to pay bills.
She is now 70 and collecting food stamps, about $70.00 a month. Now remember, she has to buy toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and toiletries, which are not covered on food stamps. That is not food. She also has to pay for electricity, rent, rent insurance, medical insurance and phone service. To be fair, she gets $100.00 a year for electric from LIHEAP [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], as well as assistance for her medical premium and prescriptions. But she is not covered for doctor appointments, hospital stays, or tests. Since she did not work for so long, her Social Security is not very much. She has about $50.00 left at the end of the month. She needs shoes, aspirin, Benadryl and many more things we do not think about until we cannot buy them.
We have been lucky at the grocery stores -- most cashiers now have relatives in the same situation, some of them receiving even less in food stamps. People are understanding. Occasionally I will let my mother buy canned shrimp or something extravagant that I pay for out of my disability money. [ed. note: Judy told us that she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and lost her job with the county soon after.] A lot of times we pool our money together to make ends meet.
Remember, milk is $2.00 per half-gallon and bread is almost $4.00 a loaf. My mother can no longer cook, so she eats Healthy Choice or Smart Ones meals, fresh fruit and vegetables, and leftovers I send to her. It is fairly easy to shop for her since it is the same thing every month: necessities to live with, a pack of cookies and a half gallon of generic ice cream. I know, why the cookies and ice cream? Everyone should be allowed something extra. Don’t judge until you try living this way. [...]
I believe there should be restrictions and checks and balances [for aid recipients], but most people do not go on these things willingly. Oh yes, there are some. When my mom got divorced, we lived in an apartment together while we both went to school and took care of my sister. I was shocked by the people in our apartment complex who, every time they came close to losing their welfare, would get pregnant again. And then they drove brand new cars. Most of them worked under the table to keep the welfare or sold drugs. Now that was 15 years ago -- fast-forward to now and people recovering from the recession. I am still wondering how some people were buying things like bath salts with their SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] cards.
As degrading as the system is, there are so many people in our area in need that most people do not judge. Years ago, when I was pregnant with twins and had a 3 1/2 year old, I was embarrassed to be on WIC [Women, Infants and Children, a federal nutrition assistance program]. So I thought I would be embarrassed shopping for Mom with her SNAP card. However, I am not, and most cashiers even talk about how someone they know is struggling on food stamps as well. My mother will never be able to go off assistance, even though the system treats her like she should. I am sure the people affected by Hurricane Sandy did not plan for this financial disaster either.
Mayor Booker gets kudos for trying this challenge. But Margo is correct in the fact that once you make even a dollar over, SNAP will be pulled from you before you even have a chance to succeed or put money in the bank. You will never get a better apartment or pay off bills accumulated from the situation, and you will be in an endless circle. There are families still living in cars and holding down two jobs.
By the way, this is all considered entitlements. Even your Social Security, which you have paid into the system for 30 years or more, has been used for other things and not for what it was intended. Mom didn’t intend for her husband to leave her. She didn't plan on having a stroke just as she was able to start putting money away. Nor did I know I was going to be diagnosed with an illness and lose a lot of cognitive function required to work. We are part of the 47% that apparently do not want to work. Yes, there are many who are not willing to work. But there are many who are afraid to work because [aid will be cut off] and they still won't be able to get on their feet. And there are those who are unable to [work] because life hit them with a blow.