My husband and I had our first child in 2007. Soon after, the country sunk into a recession that spiraled many families into financial doom. We didn’t feel the effects of it until a few years later, though, when I was newly pregnant with our second child, and my husband lost his job — the one that provided our family’s sole income, as well as our health insurance.
When it became clear that another job wasn’t on the horizon, I panicked the way only a mother does — especially a hormonally charged one.
The truth is, we really weren’t sure what we would do. We had some savings, but it was quickly being depleted. We had parents who could help, but that was limited too, and not something we wanted to rely on for very long. Without health insurance, we didn’t know how we would pay for my prenatal care, our baby’s birth, or for either of our children’s pediatric care.
So we ended up doing something we never thought we would do: We applied for SNAP benefits (food stamps), Medicaid, and WIC. We qualified for all three, though I didn’t end up using the WIC benefits as much as the others.
We were white, we were college educated, and we were from a wealthy suburban town.
I mention our race and class not to say that our plight was particularly unusual, or to elicit a “woe is me” kind of response. But I mention it because it wasn’t until my family was in a state of financial panic that I realized how very privileged a life I had led up till then.
Neither of my parents were wealthy — far from it, in fact. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was mostly raised by my single mother, who had struggled financially herself. But there was always a sense that we would be just fine. My mother had parents who were able to support her financially when she went through tough times, and even helped her move to the wealthy suburban town where I ended up going to middle school and high school.
That high school is where I met my husband, who also came from a more humble home than many of the kids who lived in our town. Still, he attended an Ivy League University, and both of us earned Master’s degrees in our fields. Financial ruin was not in the cards for us, we thought.
And yet, here we were — relying on government aid.
We went on to do so for a little over a year.
Thankfully, Medicaid covered all the medical care I needed while pregnant. It covered my birth, as well as both of my kids’ vaccinations, well visits, and sick care. The SNAP benefits we received were limited, because they determine your monthly amount by your income, and we had some income coming in from part-time work that my husband did while applying for jobs. It definitely helped with our grocery bills, but didn’t cover them, even after we cut back our spending significantly.
I am grateful for the assistance we received, but even with it, that year put us in debt — and we’re still climbing out of it.
But it also taught me some valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Until I was on it myself, I didn’t realize the intense stigma that families who rely on public assistance face. It took me a while to even admit to family and friends that we were using it.
To me, it meant that our financial crisis really was that deep (which frankly terrified me), and it signified that in some way we weren’t strong enough to get out of this mess ourselves.
But those are all inaccuracies; just stigmas created by a culture that is frankly not kind enough to families who struggle. I have since learned that our family was one of millions who were affected by unemployment as a result of the recession — many of whom had always worked hard and been successful.
I also learned that it’s a total myth that people who rely on public assistance only do so because they’re lazy, or looking for a “handout.” Public assistance actually picks people up out of financial ruin and poverty, and the fact is that you never know when financial demise will befall you. It isn’t something that anyone can plan for, and not every family has an easy way out of it, no matter how hard they work, or how well they plan.
Besides all that, it is important to remember where you are coming from when you judge other people who rely on government aid. If you come from a race or class that hasn’t historically been vulnerable to social or financial inequality, you simply cannot know what it is like to struggle, and what roadblocks people are up against as they struggle.
The phrase “check your privilege” is something that is used nowadays a lot. I know it’s phrase that makes some people uncomfortable because it sounds like a criticism. But what it is more than anything is a plea to not judge someone unless you have truly walked in their shoes, and to recognize that many of us live in vastly different worlds than each other, largely based on things like what race and class we were born into.
I don’t profess to know the depths of what it’s like to struggle financially for much of your life. And I recognize that my family is lucky, because although we still feel the effects of that one dire year, we are recovering, and will be fine. But when I hear about families who are struggling, and who are relying on government aid to help them, I feel their struggle in my bones. Because I know exactly what it’s like to worry about whether your children will be able to see a doctor, or whether or not your rent or electric bill will be paid.
Food, shelter, and medical attention are not things that any family should have worry endlessly about or struggle to provide.
So, please, next time you hear about a family who’s receiving public assistance to get back on their feet, don’t judge them. Instead, pray that they will get the help they need, so that they can recover, and live a full and plentiful life.