Rachel Britton had hoped to buy a ham for her family this Christmas. It didn't even have to be perfectly glazed or have all the fixings.
But she won't be able to afford it. Britton and her husband, Terry, and 11-year-old son, Justin, are living on a net income of about $10,000 a year, she told The Huffington Post. The family, from Wise, Va., will have a modest Christmas at Britton's mother's house, where they recently moved to save money and help provide care. The family will probably be eating Christmas dinner from a food pantry.
"It's embarrassing," Britton said. "At first I thought it was just for people who are lazy or homeless, but then I started thinking about it and we're doing everything we can and we're still coming up short."
The family of three fell on extra-hard times in April. Terry Britton, who does overnight maintenance work at a Walmart store, had been picking up over-time and was working 39 hours per week. But in the spring, the retailer told him he had to work part time at 32 hours. Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said Britton was hired as a part-time employee, but part-timers can work extra hours when they are available.
The family is among the one in seven Americans who receive food stamps. Terry Britton makes $8 an hour -- more than the $7.25 minimum wage, but far from enough to provide for a family, even in southwestern Virginia. It takes a wage of $10.20 per hour for a single person to afford basic needs in America's cheapest county, according to a study produced for The Huffington Post by Wider Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit that supports families in need.
The holidays traditionally pose an extra challenge for families in need because children are out of school and unable to rely on free and reduced-cost lunches. This year, winter came early in many parts of the country, creating higher heating bills, Ross Fraser, media relations director of hunger nonprofit Feeding America, told HuffPost.
This year also has been challenging for families in need because of November's expiration of the Recovery Act's temporary boost for SNAP, which cut the food stamp amount for every recipient household.
Rachel Britton said she recently went to a Feeding America pantry, to supplement what she can buy with the $260 in food stamps her family receives each month. With great specificity, Britton described how she patches together meals for her family, relying heavily on rice, bread, beans, apples and peppers.
This holiday, the family will watch Christmas movies, play board games and just spend time together, she said. Rachel and Terry won't exchange gifts, but they managed to save enough to buy their son some video games.
"We're blessed to have a very understanding child," Britton said. "We've always tried to teach him to be grateful and responsible and gave him an allowance for chores. Well, he doesn't get that anymore. He understands that the money's just not there."
It's been hard for the young boy, who recently asked for $20 to go on a school field trip. He tempered his request by saying it was okay if his family didn't have the funds.
"When [my son] asked about money, well, that broke my heart," Britton said. "Sometimes you have to choose, 'Am I going to pay the bills, or am I going to give my son $20 to go on the field trip?' Well, we are going to make sure he gets to go."
Britton has picked up some babysitting jobs, but mostly spends her time taking care of her mother, who suffers from seizures, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes it hard for her to breathe. Britton monitors her sugar intake and administers shots and other medication.
It's an essential role -- but still, she wishes she could be working.
Employment is one of the root issues of hunger Feeding America seeks to tackle, along with education and poverty.
"My God, people want jobs," Fraser said. "There aren't any, or if there are, they are minimum wage. Do people want to do better? Yes, they want to work."
Rachel Britton can attest to this.
Her husband had been working at Walmart at night and going to school during the day to get his welding certification. He has now completed his courses, but is having trouble finding a job.
But Rachel Britton, who was employed full time at a call center before moving in to help her mother, said she remains hopeful.
The family even gives back when they can. "If the church is having a food drive, we'll bring a can or two. Even though it might be us who ends up getting it back," Britton laughed.
Fraser said the solution for families such as the Brittons lies with the government finding a way to balance the budget that doesn't break the backs of the neediest members of society.
"We understand the government needs to be responsible, but the food stamp program is a whopping 2 percent of the federal budget," Fraser said. "So to have government leaders home in on a small percentage of the federal budget that helps the poorest and most vulnerable -- we believe that is the wrong way to balance the budget."
Fraser pointed out that food stamps mostly help children, people with disabilities and seniors. "These are the people who have no money," he said. "We've just got to protect the program. We've got to stop this nonsense that people are somehow gaming the system or enrolled when they shouldn't be."
Update: After an outpouring of support for the Britton family, a fund has been set up in the family's name. See how you can help here:
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Feeding America has other ways you can help, including resources for contacting local members of Congress or donating. If you're interested in helping the Britton family, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.