I’m lucky. I’ve never known real hunger. I’ve never had to choose between feeding myself or my child. Or worse, not having any food to make that choice with at all. But I might have, if it weren’t for the WiC program, short for Women Infants Children, a food and nutrition program which provides supplemental food vouchers to low-income families so they can eat. When I needed WiC, it was there. But due to the government shutdown currently keeping nearly 800,000 government workers home without pay, there will be new and expectant mothers who will be faced with hunger for themselves or their families as the program falls in with the countless other government-funded initiatives that are closing their doors. Some states have reserves that will last at most two weeks. Other states have already instructed WiC workers to stay home.
I want to tell you a little about how WiC works and I want to tell you my story because I think it’s important that those of us who are not currently being affected directly by this congressional emergency stop and take a moment to understand how damaging this whole thing could be to those who are affected by it. 800,000 denotes the number of government workers who are sitting helplessly at home, but it doesn’t include the ripple effect, the people for whom these “non-essential workers” provide essential services to every day, nor does it quantify the losses of the local economies which these workers and those people patronize.
It’s stupid that I feel as nauseous as I do writing this post. But I do. Not only because I feel a sense of solidarity with the women who are currently part of the program, but also because the world we live in, the world I grew up in, and the world I participate in on a daily basis, has got me convinced that the three months our family took government assistance with food out of sheer necessity is something to be ashamed of.
It’s not. I did everything I was supposed to do. I had an emergency savings. A job with benefits. A stable home. And yet, in spite of all of the pieces being in place, life did not go according to plan. I lost my job the week we conceived our daughter. My husband, who owns a luxury service-based business, was already starting to see a tapering off of clients as the economy toppled. We figured we could hang on until things righted themselves. What we didn’t figure, was that taking any work that was offered to me (as required by law) before I was able to go on paid family leave for my pregnancy/recovery would cause my unemployment to recalculate to a fraction of my new, significantly lower quarterly earnings as soon as my daughter was born, in turn leaving us with all but nothing coming in on my end. What we didn’t figure was that I would remain unemployed for the better part of two years while our emergency funds and our nest egg were slowly transferred over to our checking account and whittled away on necessities for our newfound family of three.
As you can imagine, after about twenty months things were getting dire. We were no longer able to make ends meet. The day I realized we not only needed WiC but qualified for it I cried. I cried the whole drive to the strip mall in Van Nuys where my local WiC office was. When it was my turn, I cried while the woman behind the desk asked me a long list of questions about diet and nutrition — a mandated part of the program to ensure mothers are properly educated — and while she printed out my checks. I finally stopped crying when I realized that I would be able to do a full grocery shop that day AND pay our DWP bill. I finally stopped crying when I felt relief wash over me, and I took a deep breath for the first time in months. There are few stresses greater than the stress of literally having nothing but that jar of pennies you never meant to use for anything when there are mouths to feed.
The WiC checks aren’t for money; you can’t deposit them, and they’re only good for certain foods which you can use them to purchase at your regular supermarket. Until you get the hang of it, it can be frustrating — it’s easy to grab the wrong brand of milk — the one you’re used to — the one that isn’t covered by WiC — and then be left to the mercy of your cashier as they either a) call out over the loud speaker for your replacement items “The WiC approved, please” while the people in line behind you change lanes (happened) or b) recognize the horror on your face and close their register so they can show you how your checks work because once upon a time they had been there too (also happened).
Three months after I signed up for WiC, I was offered my first professional blogging gig. It was part time but it was enough to be able to buy whichever brand of milk I wanted again. The economy recovered and my husband’s clients returned and referred new ones. I’m grateful that we don’t need or qualify for any kind of assistance any more, but I’ll never ever forget what WiC did for my family when we really truly had nowhere else to turn.
As of today Utah’s WiC program has closed its doors to new members (each state is responsible for their own program’s budget). As of today, any Mom in Utah who finds themselves at that painful impasse and asks for help will be turned away, told there’s no help for them or their family until the government reopens. The program’s website has already been shuttered. My heart breaks that it has come to this. Real people’s lives. Real people who don’t need the added stress of this bullshit shutdown while our elected officials play games. Please take note of your representative’s actions during this time and remember them come next year.
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