Food Stamp Families to Critics: Walk in Our Shoes

By: Jesse Washington, Associated Press
By: Jesse Washington, Associated Press

Food Stamp Families to Critics: Walk in Our Shoes

Some have advanced degrees and remember middle-class lives. Some work selling lingerie or building websites. They are white, black and Hispanic, young and old, homeowners and homeless. What they have in common: They're all on food stamps.

As the food stamp program has become an issue in the Republican presidential primary, with candidates seeking to tie President Barack Obama to the program's record numbers, The Associated Press interviewed recipients across the country and found many who wished that critics would spend some time in their shoes.

Most said they never expected to need food stamps, but the Great Recession, which wiped out millions of jobs, left them no choice. Some struggled with the idea of taking a handout; others saw it as their due, earned through years of working steady jobs. They yearn to get back to receiving a paycheck that will make food stamps unnecessary.

"I could never have comprehended being on food stamps," said Christopher Jenks, who became homeless in his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul after a successful career in sales and marketing.

He refused to apply for several years, even panhandling on a freeway exit ramp before finally giving in. A few months ago, while living in his car, he began receiving $200 per month.

"It's either that or I die," said Jenks, who grew up in a white, middle-class family and lost his job in the recession. "I want a job. So do a lot of other Americans that have been caught up in this tragedy."

In 2011, more than 45 million people - about one in seven Americans - received benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most ever. Fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier.

Forty-nine percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to Census data.

Food assistance emerged as a campaign issue after statements by GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about African-Americans, the poor and Obama, whom Gingrich labeled the "best food stamp president in American history."

Critics accused Gingrich of seeking votes by invoking racial stereotypes about black welfare recipients with comments like "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Challenged at a GOP debate this week on whether the rhetoric was insulting, Gingrich insisted it was not and received a standing ovation from the South Carolina audience.

Linda Miles is grateful to have food stamps, although she's not happy about why she needs them. An Army veteran with a master's degree, Miles, who is black, was laid off as a substitute teacher in Philadelphia amid deep budget cuts. After facing an empty refrigerator for too long, she recently started receiving $200 per month in food aid.

"Food stamps are essential, especially with the economy in the shape it's in," she said. "I pay taxes. I don't steal anything from the government. I paid my dues to society; I'm a veteran. You took something from me by taking away my job. I wouldn't need food stamps if you hadn't taken my job."

Miles started an unpaid internship this week, and also was certified to work in early childhood care while she looks for a permanent job.

"I'm not one of these people who sit on their butt and just collect a check," Miles said. "I've got a resume three pages long."

Ronnie McHugh was watching the GOP debate from home in Spring City, Pa. When Gingrich received the standing ovation, McHugh got so angry that she turned off the TV.

"I'd give a million dollars if I could find a job. I'm 64 years old, and no one wants to hire me," said McHugh, who is white, divorced, has no savings and lives off $810 per month in Social Security.

"I would like them to sit in my shoes," she said of the debate audience. "I would tell them I had a husband who made $150,000 a year, I had a good salary. We were both laid off at the same time by the same company, and I've never been able to rally from that."

"If they had a chance to sit in my shoes, they would be happy to have a program to help people who did work all their life."

Some critics say the Obama administration's policies have pushed people into dependency on food stamps. Eligibility rules were broadened in 2002 and 2008 before Obama took office; his 2009 stimulus package relaxed some work requirements and temporarily increased payouts.

For others, the recession, which pushed the unemployment rate as high as 10 percent and increased poverty, is the primary culprit.

The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger has seen a doubling of enrollments in suburban counties, with a smaller increase in the city itself. "These are much higher-income areas," said Julie Zaebst, the coalition's policy center manager. "This is part of the evidence showing that the most important reason for the growth in the program was the recession."

It was an injury that pushed Russell Johnson of Morgantown, W.Va., over the edge. He held down a steady refrigeration job until he fell off a roof six years ago. On Wednesday, he and his wife, Carolyn, used their food stamp card to buy $64.71 worth of groceries. That was more than half of their $102 monthly benefit.

"It's not enough, but it helps," Carolyn said. "I think it's a great program for the people who need it."

The Johnsons, who are white, maintain a big garden, hunt, fish and buy in bulk, like the 50-pound sack of potatoes in their cart. Carolyn also is disabled; they receive $763 per month in total disability payments.

They are furious with Gingrich. "I'd rather work than be on food stamps, but, I mean, my body says no. So what am I gonna do?" Russell said. "If I sit for too long, my back starts hurting and my leg goes numb. If I stand too long, the same old thing. And if I walk too much, my legs give out like they ain't even there."

He said the people criticizing food assistance eat at fancy restaurants and pay $25 for a sack of potatoes.

"Me, I'm dang lucky to get to go to McDonald's," Russell said.

About half of those receiving food aid are children. In Fresno, Calif., Josephine Gonzales has received assistance since becoming pregnant with her first child last fall. She is trained as a medical assistant and previously worked at an elementary school, but hasn't found a new job since giving birth.

"I use food stamps because I'm a single mom and I don't work, so I need a way to survive," said Gonzales, who is Hispanic. "Instead of spending the little cash I have on food, I can spend it on diapers and other things for my baby. It's just a small help. It's not making our lives luxurious."

Twanda Graham of Montgomery, Ala., started receiving food stamps when she graduated from high school 22 years ago. She has worked all that time, currently in a clothing store. She is unmarried with four children, and said she does not earn enough to feed her family.

Graham, who is black, believes she is paying for her assistance with taxes withheld from her paycheck: "They are not giving me anything for free."

Victoria Busby of Oklahoma City is a white single mom with two children. She has received food assistance intermittently since her first child was born two years ago. A high school graduate, she works part-time building websites for a manufacturing company, and aspires to become a nurse.

She is not ashamed about receiving aid. "I don't feel bad about it because my children need to eat. It's helped quite a bit."

Sophia Clark is a film school graduate in New York City who works part time at Victoria's Secret while she freelances on movie productions. In December she began receiving $130 per month because she couldn't afford to buy food after paying for rent, college loans and her cell phone.

"It was never, ever my intention to rely on public assistance in any way," said Clark, who is black and unmarried with no children.

Clark was recently entertaining a guest in the Bronx apartment she shares with her uncle when the dinner conversation turned to food stamps. The guest emphatically stated that his tax dollars should not feed people who prefer welfare over work.

She asked the guest if he had enjoyed the pasta with homemade pesto sauce. He had. "Do you find me a lazy person?" Clark asked. Not at all, the guest replied.

"Well," Clark said, "you just ate a dinner that was purchased with food stamps."

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Online:

Chris Jenks: http://twincitieslife.wordpress.com/about/

Hunger Coalition: http://www.hungercoalition.org/

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  • by Jenna on Jan 22, 2012 at 05:47 AM
    The difference is, we choose NOT to walk in your shoes because we have self-respect. At one point in my life, my husband and I qualified for food stamps. Watching people pay for beef, including steak, with food stamps while we paid for dried beans with coins, I still felt better about our family. Food stamps are for those that don't get off their butts and TRY to survive by working. And if you can't afford to feed them, STOP having babies!
    • reply
      by April on Jan 23, 2012 at 09:22 AM in reply to Jenna
      As an individual that has never applied nor received food stamps but considered working class "Poor". Jenna you took a big gulp of something by stating that people with self respect would not ever elect to receive food stamps. Well I assume you sit on your hunches and pass judgement towards anyone who is different then you.. Notice ignorance, racisim, and hate can all be cured by travel.. Stating that people should not have children if they can not afford them.. Well missy when things happen to people that are not of their own doing and YES marriage does not last forever.. Neither do jobs and unlimited resources.. Watching my grandparents suffer and starve because pride would not allow them to receive the assistance they worked over 50 years for was literally a sin to be so PRIDEFUL>>> So God bless you and your self respect and I pray you God never shows you the reality of what things can be like..
      • reply
        by Kevin aka Reality on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:42 AM in reply to April
        Right on the Money . Obviously that Bumpkin hasnt had a Layoff yet , or CHOOSES to be in that situation ....she also probably believes Employers are willing to Hire anyone with a decent resume cough ..... See people all the time with ten years experienced passed over.
    • reply
      by anonymous on Jan 28, 2012 at 03:23 PM in reply to Jenna
      I say good for you, Jenna. I've also been able to qualify for food stamps (long ago) but lived within my means. My mom (single mom) did the same.
  • by Kevin aka Reality Location: Monticello on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:35 AM
    F D R was much better than Obama He led us OUT of Crisis by realizing Mergers allowing Banks to become Too big to fail were stupid , And he Acted , he didnt just talk. The reason Repubs hate him ....he knew America wasnt just for the Corporate Executive.
  • by Kevin aka Reality Location: Monticello on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:23 AM
    In America Why is it rather than doing the RIGHT , SENSIBLE thing we always have One extreme or the other? If you want to help the People who were intended , but eliminate waste follow simple Model : 1. E Verify FOOD STAMPS Anyone who is Illegal wont qualify and give a flat denial. 2. If a Mother is getting assistance thats fine , But there should NOT be an increase in number of children she has while getting aid .....Or Denial. It isnt meant as a career. If disabled ...No problem there , providing you can show Proof. From Soc. Dept. etc. But no , we would rather give them to the entire world or nobody at all ? Thats like curing a headache by cutting your own head off.
  • by Average Location: Tallahassee on Jan 20, 2012 at 04:21 PM
    The Census is telling the truth, I am a white woman and I work for DCF, and my sister n law and her entire family gets goverment assistance. It's no longer blacks who top the list. The cases now exceeds with the latinos and whites, Unbelievable. The latinos have entered America and has establish citizenship here and recieving more than any American have, not only are they recieving help but are assisting their families in Mexico using American Funds. No longer is this a land of the free for the American people but has become a land overcrowded with Latinos/hispanics which raises our taxes tremendously! My fellow Whites lets form a Union and boycott these people for our kids will be the ones to suffer! Blacks are not the problem!
    • reply
      by Jenny from the block on Jan 20, 2012 at 07:18 PM in reply to Average
      WOW WOW WOW AND WOW! Now all I have to say is if I'm Hispanic, you are White, They are Black, and Who is what because from my knowledge when the lights are turned off all is black , when you mix every color together the color is Black so no matter the color of your skin You are still all human and not just a human but a Spirit living in the physical so when you disembody you have no color or faces or whatever else those who judge God's creation because the same can happen to you so don't be surprised if you reincarnate into just one of those poor, homeless,disabled, low-income families, etc, and with plenty of food stamps you will need. Those who complain and pay for your own food wait and see a few more months when your government in which actually offers every slave with a social and who is an USA citizen all these benefits if you choose when they tell you you have nothing and your money is no value what will you say then....oh so so much ignorance in this world of our Human race...WOW
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:22 AM in reply to Jenny from the block
        If I ever needed somebody to help me feed and clothe my children and they did I would not turn around and call them a racist "whitey" after they had fed me and my children. I would thank them and try to find someway to pay them back. Jenny from the block.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:09 PM in reply to Jenny from the block
        "...oh so so much ignorance in this world of our Human race...WOW" I agree, your post is a good example of ignorance run amuck.
    • reply
      by Reagan Republican on Jan 20, 2012 at 07:22 PM in reply to Average
      We need to contact our local representatives and voice our support of E-verify legislation which has passed in many states. It requires employers to check the legal status of any new hire and places fines on employers who hire illegals. We no longer can afford to help Americans AND illegals who live in America and it is not fair to hard working people or those looking for jobs.
      • reply
        by Kevin aka Reality on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:25 AM in reply to Reagan Republican
        I rarely these days agree with Repubs Nor Obama , but my friend Good show for recognizing there are struggling people who WANT a job , but never get called back , or cant find one! Kudos
    • reply
      by Rape is being done to deliberately impregnate 12 yr olds girls for the welfare check on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:32 AM in reply to Average
      Latino people work, hard, with no attitude or sense that someone owes them something. Blacks are the husslers in the system and the people working for welfare discriminate against helping the others. None the less I don't care what race tops the list. We should not be running a conception for check program. If you work for DCF you know better than most that people will exploit, rape and deliberately impregnate 12 yr old girls so they can get their welfare checks. You know there doing it now. You know there is no way government can manage that program well enough to prevent that kind of activity from continuing. Our government does not need to be paying people for conception. They are creating a mess. The only way to stop the rapes for a check program is to stop the checks.
    • reply
      by Kevin aka Reality on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:24 AM in reply to Average
      DCF . I know someone who worked in case disbursment , and with Kidcare . Everyday they were told if someone doesnt have a Soc number....put in all zero's . Until that ends there will be waste
  • by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 03:31 PM
    Food stamps should allow for potatoes, evaporated milk, flower, eggs. Instead I see people buying crab claws, high dollar steaks, marachino cherries, ice cream, french fries, kool aide. When you work for your money you spend it wisely. WHen it is given to you you waste it.
    • reply
      by You want socilism on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:35 AM in reply to
      I don't want to babysit people. I don't want my government babysitting people. I don't want my government telling people what food they can have and what food they can not have. That is not a democracy. That is socialism. Let people support, clothe and feed their own children that they "choose" to conceive. If they can not not afford to do so, let them decide not to conceive them
    • reply
      by I AGREE on Jan 23, 2012 at 09:28 AM in reply to
      I do believe in Socialism and Social Services.. I am not a Socialist.. There has to be a mild mixture of Socialism and Conservatism in this world.. Fidnign the balance is the key.. I too become appaled when witnessing people buying ridiculous items from a grocery store instead of neccesseties.. 300 dollars a month could sustain my family easily buy buying in bulk, using coupons, and planning meals ahead.. EBT folks should not be allowed to purchase speciality items wit food stamps.. But is their anyway to regulate this? If so lets contact our local leaders.. Change must come from within..
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:19 AM in reply to I AGREE
        Why does there have to be a mild mixture of socialism? Do you feel people are not able to live thier own lines without the government coming in to tell them how. You think the gaovernment is a better manager over someone else child, than the parent itself. Oh Ok Now I have heard everthing. Name me one thing the government manages well. The government does not manage anything well. You need to allow people to live as they want to live. To make the choices they want to make and to suffer the consequence of the choice they make. People manage their own lives, better than the government ever will. I don't want to monitor what someone else is purchasing or not purchasing in the grocery store. I don't want my government to monitor what they can have of can not have. Let everyone feed their own children what they decide is best to feed them and let them pay for it themselves, because the government is not going to be a better parent to children then the biological parents are.
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Jan 28, 2012 at 03:25 PM in reply to
          "Do you feel people are not able to live thier own lines without the government coming in to tell them how"...you're talking about folks living on the dime of others.
  • by Michelle on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:16 AM
    I thank the Lord every day that I have my job and don't have to rely on food stamps. When my children were babies my husband left us and I had been a homemaker since they were born. All at once I had to find a job, pay rent, childcare, etc. and there was no child support coming in. If it were not for food stamps we would have starved. Ten years later I make a good living but I keep in mind that just as easy I could be back to square one and on food stamps.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 01:36 PM in reply to Michelle
      Then on the other side of the coin you have the low life male scum who has figured out a way to line his pocket. He decides to deliberately impregnate young girls keep them in a compound and pocket their welfare checks. I am not for welfare. We need to end welfare . The government will never be able to stop that scum from raping and deliberately impregnating young girls so they can get the welfare checks. The only way to stop it. Is to stop enabling it. Stop funding it. No girl should be deliberate impregnated for some scum to profit. You had a choice they do not.
      • reply
        by WHAT??? on Jan 23, 2012 at 09:32 AM in reply to
        Not saying this has not happened but where are the facts that this situation is an edpidemic.. I am sure men rape or impregante young girls for male pleasure more then a opportunity to recieve a check.. I mean it is illegal to have sex with under age children.. DNA is ran these days so I do not see this as being a major concern as you.. If so maybe you should contact local authorities because I have never known anyone that this has happened too. I know alot of folks from both sides of the tracks.
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:28 AM in reply to WHAT???
          It most certainly has happen and you know it has happened. There are men out west that are forming supposed religious communes. They are taking multiple 12 yrs old girls to be their wives, the state does not recognize the marriage. They are then raping these 12 yr old girls and deliberately impregnating them so they can get the welfare checks started. They are not a religious commune. That is a lie. Welfare is producing horror for children that you and I can not imagine. I am not for it. We need to stop funding immediately. They just has a national news story about this several month ago the man had 20 under age wives and they arrested him for child molestation.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 01:59 PM in reply to Michelle
      Michelle, many of the people who are so against welfare fail to realize that they can end up in the same predicament. Sure, the first thing they will say is that they will do all they can because they don't accept freebies, but a lot of people don't realize that anyone can go through hard times and will need help. It is all about how you utilize your help. I get so sick of these comments turning racial. There are people from all races on assistance. Number wise, there are more whites on assistance, but percentage wise, there are more blacks because the black population is so much smaller than the white population. Just as some of these people who commented on this article stated that black women have children to "get a check" (in certain cases there do), there are white, Hispanics, etc. who do the same thing (in certain cases).
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:42 AM in reply to Anonymous
        Michelle, many people who are for welfare fail to realize that the program is paying men to deliberately rape,impregnate 12yr old girls who live in their religious compounds. Than they are killing the babies, bury them in an unmarked grave and keeping the welfare checks. Their our entire communities out west that participating in this welfare scam.The have grave yard full of unmarked infant graves. I am not for welfare. Government will never be able to administer that program in such a way to ensure that kind of horror does not continue. The only way to stop it, is to stop the welfare checks.
    • reply
      by Reagan Republican on Jan 20, 2012 at 07:29 PM in reply to Michelle
      @ Michelle Your story is a wonderful example of the SNAP system working to help feed families! Thanks for sharing your story and glad you have moved forward with your life. Unfortunately, some people take complete advantage of the system and their goal is to stay stagnate and NOT improve the living standard for their family with futher education, improved job skills or even work a full time job.
      • reply
        by Kevin aka Reality on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:27 AM in reply to Reagan Republican
        Now thats truth ....The ones who would like to move forward , or disabled , such as autism or mental No problem. But the Career handouts gotta stop.
        • reply
          by End Welfare on Jan 21, 2012 at 02:07 PM in reply to Kevin aka Reality
          Yes, but you can start at that point you have to start at the extreme.
  • by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 10:52 AM
    I am a full-time student who worked for seven years, until I got permanently laid off in May 2011 (company closed). I have been searching for a job since I got laid off, but to no avail. Where I stay, not a lot of jobs take chances on college students because they want workers who can work any shift, which college students are unable to do. I tried to apply for food stamp after I got laid off and I was told that I didn't qualify because being a full-time student with no children,I have to work an average of 20 hours a week. I was on food stamps before for a short period of time while working because I only worked part-time and barely made enough to pay my rent or utilities. I need assistance now more than when I was working. I guess the system thinks that if you are a full-time student and not working, someone is taking care of you, which is not true in my case. My opinion is that the system is extremely flawed and that everyone who is on assistance or seeking assistance is not abusing it. True, there are plenty of people who are, but many people need it as survival.
  • by Tiered of the do gooders on Jan 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM
    You administer the money and than you want to administer the way people live their lives because you are funding it. Right? You can not do that. You can not control people. You have to let people live as they "choose" to live. You have to let people "conceive" children they "choose' to conceive. And most importantly you have to let them bare the consequences of their own choices. Stop trying to save everybody. You are not saving them. You are enabling them. Stop
    • reply
      by I know right on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:12 AM in reply to Tiered of the do gooders
      Oh wait, Jesus was a do-gooder (hummmm)
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:56 PM in reply to I know right
        Jesus never bribe women into having children out of wedlock they could not afford.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:47 AM in reply to Tiered of the do gooders
      I disagree. If you take a handout then you follow the rules of those who are providing it. If you don't care to follow the rules then you decline the handout. Your freedom ends when you take from others.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 01:31 PM in reply to
        Don't give the handout. No person wants to be enslaved to your rules.
    • reply
      by Kevin aka Reality on Jan 21, 2012 at 07:29 AM in reply to Tiered of the do gooders
      Then encourage LESS children NOT MORE (Republican Right)
      • reply
        by Limit Kids on Jan 23, 2012 at 09:43 AM in reply to Kevin aka Reality
        I say if you have 2 children and are receiving benefits you should sign a agreement that if you have anymore children then you will be deemed disqualified from receiving assistance. Get your tubes tied, birth control, abstinence, or rubbers.. Who cares but just because you have alot of free time on your hands does not give one the right to sit up and sex without being responsible.. Hell if I had all that free time I guess I would be sexing alot more too.. But you can't say you were in a rush and forget the protection..
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Jan 23, 2012 at 10:30 AM in reply to Limit Kids
          I don't want to babysit people and they don't want you to babysit them. Let people have as many children as they want to conceive. Let them feed and clothe their own children and stop trying to think you are better managers of their lives than they are.
  • by Concerned in Tally Location: Tallahassee on Jan 20, 2012 at 10:25 AM
    It is easier to play the blame game instead of making valid factual observations. Perhaps the record number of food stamp cases should be linked to the poor economic conditions which were a direct result of actions taken by the previous administration. Just my observation!
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:13 AM in reply to Concerned in Tally
      that would be using common sense...and if you have been paying attention...there is a "low" amount of "common sense" going around...
    • reply
      by Your children are your responsibility on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:22 AM in reply to Concerned in Tally
      There is no blame game. It is very black and white. The blame for your children being conceived in to an environment where you can not afford to feed them is no one else's blame but your own. "Your" children are "your" responsibility. I know that concept is hard to understand sometimes but it it the truth.
      • reply
        by you r right on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:11 PM in reply to Your children are your responsibility
        and DCF needs to go...if they are your children, you should be able to feed them, beat them or kill them....AMEN!!!
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 03:56 PM in reply to you r right
          I am not a fan of DCF either. I think your children are "your" responsibility. If you kill or mame them, you are going to held responsible. Trust me. I am not for kids being sent to foster care. I don't think foster care is good thing to do to your children either
      • reply
        by STATE WORKER on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:13 PM in reply to Your children are your responsibility
        It's people like you.....It's every parent's responsibility to rear and feed their children, but what you are failing to understand this is not a black or white situation. I work in the government field and I see just as many whites apply for food stamps as blacks and other nationalities. What if a mother who was married had children and her spouse abandoned her and her children and food help is needed? Should she not apply for help and let her children starve because of people like you? Grow up and stop whining about something that Bush nor President Obama has not been able to change. Point blank period..
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Jan 21, 2012 at 03:45 AM in reply to STATE WORKER
          Men are optional. Conception is a choice.
  • by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 09:36 AM
    Obama and FDR loved to give, give, give. Where will it end?
    • reply
      by Gadsden County on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:13 PM in reply to
      When you run for President and WIN...
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Jan 20, 2012 at 03:27 PM in reply to Gadsden County
        I don't care to run for president. Unlike those two I KNOW I can't do the job.
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