I used to be a food stamp eligibility worker–now I receive a “food stamp/SNAP benefit card.” I didn’t understand how it all felt and what it all meant at the time, but now I do in a way I’ll never forget.
It all started almost exactly twenty years ago. In the spring semester of 1995, I was attending Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, after finally figuring out that I wanted to become a social worker. I had been living with depression over the past previous few years, living on campus but not attending classes for a year or so, and piecing together barely enough money to live between three part-time jobs and occasional help from my family. I started working full-time as a food stamp eligibility worker for the State of Kentucky and went back to school in the spring semester. I took the only two available nighttime classes and got on with my life. I was excelling in school and learning new things at work, and for the first time in ages, I wasn’t absolutely broke.
This is when the shit hit the fan. I admit that I remember very little about the events of that spring. I believe I’ve blocked much of it out. The social work faculty was short a member and was in the process of interviewing new candidates. The seminary administration disagreed with the stated beliefs of some of the candidates, and so conflict ensued. In the interest of openness with the students, the dean of the social work program held a meeting with us to keep us informed. She was promptly fired. The Council of Social Work Education threatened to take away the program’s accreditation.
I vaguely remember taking days off to participate in civil protests (we were budding social workers after all!) and to be at meetings to find out what was going on, until the climax came. “Social work values are in conflict with Christian values.” Say what? Service to humanity, social justice, human dignity and worth….these are in conflict with Christian values? From that moment, I began doubting what organized religion is all about.
We were finally told that the program would no longer be part of the seminary. Since I had lost time due to my depression, I wouldn’t be graduating with the last students who got their degrees. In the spring of 1995, when I should have been leaving campus with a Master of Social Work degree, I was instead packing up my life, looking for a place to live now that seminary was no longer an option, and trying to figure out what to do next.
As you can guess, I was doing it without a job. My supervisor saw that my heart wasn’t in my work, but in doing true social work (no, food stamp eligibility workers are not social workers). So I chose to move on.
I ended up taking out student loans and getting a Master of Education in Counseling Psychology, but of course, I found that degree not as marketable as the MSW. I graduated in December 1997 and finally found a full time job in February 1999. I had been working part-time in a homeless shelter for almost three years in a job I adored, but it was never going to be full-time work. I ended up doing full-time telephone survey interviewing for the Census Bureau. I hated it, but did it for a little over a year—until the day I attempted suicide at work.
Thankfully, my parents were willing to take me in until I got better, which took about two years. I was approved for Social Security Disability Income on the first attempt, which I guess happens when you try to kill yourself at work. I got married after those two years and moved to Canada.
Things went along okay for a while until my “birth defect” (spina bifida and hydrocephalus) may have saved my life. My doctor found a mass on a kidney MRI. After we moved to the States, we found out that it was cancer, and part of my right kidney was removed in March 2012. I worked for eighteen months after a few months recovery, but then stopped working again in July 2014.
Until the day I received my first SNAP card in 2000, I never really understood what it felt like to be on food stamp assistance. Food stamp eligibility workers usually have no idea how demeaning it can be to be interviewed about EVERY SINGLE DETAIL of your life that might pertain to something that affects how much assistance you get. I get it now. You feel guilty for anything you have that people might think you “shouldn’t.”
I get frustrated with having to live the way I do. People make assumptions about me. There’s a stigma to not working. But I’m lucky. At least people can see that something is wrong with me. When I’m out most of the time now, I use a wheelchair. Even if I carry my cane, my gait is noticeably wobbly. If it were only the depression that kept me from working, the stigma would be even worse because depression is an invisible disability. People can’t understand it, because they can’t see it. I can’t afford to be without health coverage of some kind because if something goes wrong with any of the many health problems that keep cropping up, I’m screwed. I miss working when I don’t have a job. I hate sitting at home feeling useless because I can’t drive, can’t work, can’t do much of anything. I’m trying to reinvent my life again. I’m trying to figure out who I am and what I can do to make the world a better place.
If you’re a Christian who is trying to understand all the political debate about who gets what and who’s deserving of assistance and who’s scamming the taxpayers, remember one thing. You and I are God with skin on. Would God make those distinctions? Maybe we shouldn’t either. In Matthew 25:35-40 where Jesus talks about caring for the “least of these,.” he doesn’t set up any qualifications. If someone is hungry, they get fed whether they are in the unemployment line and applying for jobs or not. They get clothed if they are naked, even if their house didn’t burn down in a fire. They don’t get judged. It’s a simple matter of “seeing a need, and filling that need. No questions asked. Even to those in prison.” (trademark Amy Lutes)
The really funny thing is that now that I’ve gone through this experience I bet I’d be a damn good social worker. Being one of the “least of these” really opens your eyes to the plight of the “least of these.” I may never actually get to do the work, because with student debt hanging over my head for the rest of my life, getting a MSW might be pretty much impossible. Lived experience is one hell of a teacher—one I wouldn’t wish on anybody, even someone I despised. But I believe it has helped me become more passionate and compassionate about doing what I can when I can. Maybe that’s the silver lining in the whole thing. I’d hate to think there wasn’t one in it at all.