Viewpoint

Checkout- lane scorn falls on the indigent

A New York City girl pays for her mother's groceries using EBT, or food stamps, tokens.
A New York City girl pays for her mother's groceries using EBT, or food stamps, tokens. GETTY

Want to see a look of pure hatred? Pull out an EBT card at the grocery store.

Now that my kids are grown and gone, my Social Security check is enough to keep me from qualifying for government food benefits. But I remember well when we did qualify for a monthly EBT (electronic benefit transfer) deposit, a whopping $22 – and that was before Congress cut SNAP benefits in November 2013. Like 70 percent of people receiving SNAP benefits, I couldn’t feed my family on that amount. But I remember the comments from middle-class people, the assumptions about me and my disability and what the poor should and shouldn’t be spending money on.

Anger toward those living below the poverty line seems to only be increasing. Maine and Missouri have proposed bills limiting residents’ food choices if they use SNAP. Missouri House Bill 813 would bar the state’s 930,000 food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy cookies, chips, soda, energy drinks, steak and seafood. If the bill becomes law, a Missourian can’t buy a can of tuna with an EBT card. Tortilla chips to go with salsa? Nope. Who are these people, and what makes them think that what we eat is their business? And given that the average food stamp allotment in my state in 2013 came out to just $1.41 per person per meal, I wonder if they understand that recipients couldn’t buy lobster if they wanted to.

In America today, being poor is tantamount to a criminal offense, one that costs you a number of rights and untold dignities, including, apparently, the ability to determine what foods you can put on the dinner table. When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times.

When I used WIC (Women, Infants and Children) to supplement the diets of myself and my two children, we were required to report to the Health Department quarterly for weight and wellness checks.

There are many lives I would rather lead, and poverty is not my choice. As a child, I lived in a lovely family neighborhood in Connecticut, where we had horses and a barn, competed in horse shows, and went to Maine on vacation. Illness stole any dreams of emulating my upbringing, or of raising my children in the comfort that I had growing up.

My disability is invisible, which means I draw stares when I park in the blue-lined spots up front. The invisibility also means I hear opinions from people who don’t know me well – opinions on poor people. I don’t sound poor; I don’t look poor. I want to ask, “What does poor look like, anyway?”

It’s as if middle-class and wealthy Americans think poor people live under the poverty line by choice, as if a sensible person would choose to subsist on so little. We’re barely getting by. Don’t tell us what to buy at the grocery store.

Jeanine Grant Lister is a writer living in Corinth, Kentucky.

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