Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone. May you all find joy and renewal this holiday season and hear the Whos singing. We delivered our homemade stollen bread to our neighbors this morning; my family has arrived to share Christmas with us; and the music is loud and strong. I want to leave you with a final link this season. These are Christmas stories collected by Yahoo’s The Lookout national affairs blog for its series “Down and Out.” Some of them are tough to read, but they also convey courage and determination. Again, Merry Christmas!

The Weekly Welfare Survey

The results are in! Last week we asked: “Should we further limit the types of food that welfare recipients can buy?” The majority of voters think so. Just under half thought the government should limit purchases to only healthy and basic foods, an answer we’ll explore in a future post. Another 20 percent or so chose “If they don’t work, they shouldn’t eat.” I’d like to ask those voters if they support food stamps for the working poor. And just over 10% said food choices should be limited because “Yes, I can’t eat steak, so why should they.” So in all, about three-fourths of respondents thought we should place further limits on how food benefits are spent.

And here is this week’s Christmas poll with an issue I’ve been wrestling with this month. Please add a comment to explain your answer if you have time:



Let it Go, let it go, let it go–away

Tell me when it’s over!” Like the snowman in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I hold my umbrella against the blizzard, pelted by flying bits of Christmas, and wait for the storm to end.

Everywhere I go I’m bombarded by carols telling me to have a holly-jolly Christmas, by ads where smiling families unwrap their gifts under glowing trees and by displays of the latest and greatest. This year, for the first time in my life, I can’t wait for the holidays to be over.

Like the Grinch, I’m balanced on top of Mount Crumpit, trying to find some meaning in Christmas. But so far no one in Whoville is singing.

I go shopping and comb the aisles for something we can afford. I’m surrounded by people buying. I leave with nothing. It’s now three days until Christmas Eve. My husband and I have agreed not to exchange gifts so we can buy the kids a present, but I look at him leaving for work in a ratty sweater to hide the holes in his sleeves, and I want to cry. I’m haunted by all our past Christmases, just as surely as Scrooge.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows me our old traditions. A favorite was a trip into Seattle to see the gingerbread houses at the Sheraton. Sometimes we’d spend the night at the hotel and take a night carriage ride to see the lights, listening to the clop of hooves on the pavement and watching the steam from the horse’s breath. Or we’d take the kids to the Nutcracker, and I’d tell the story about how I was a snowflake once and my tulle skirt caught and pulled down the scenery as I leapt out on stage. Closer to home we’d have an expedition to cut down a tree that always turns out to be too big for our stand, and we’d take the dog and the kids to buy hot chocolate and drive around to look at Christmas lights. Christmas Day we’d feast on a roast that never cooks on time, and share presents long-distance with our parents and our siblings’ families.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows me wanting to trade any gifts for a month’s worth of heat. The present is struggling to put something under the tree for the kids. It’s trying to explain to family and friends why we won’t exchange gifts this year. It’s being too busy trying to work to spend time together. It’s buying the roast with food stamps under the cashier’s frown. It’s purchasing baking ingredients to make presents and enduring the litany of EBT comments in my head. It’s sorting through sales items and pretending I can actually buy something, knowing I’m going to leave empty-handed. It’s enduring comments from my stepmother about why I haven’t seen my dad in almost two years, even though he’s recovering from lung cancer. I can’t bring myself to tell them we’re on food stamps and I can’t afford a plane ticket.

I hope Christmas Future is better. This one I just want to be over. I know I’m supposed to find greater meaning. That the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate Christ’s birth. I know I have blessings beyond many, many people, and I’m grateful. But in truth, I feel like I’m mourning something lost. I want to buy my kids presents and see their expressions when they open them. I want the strain leave my husband’s face and to quit feeling guilty because he never complains. I want to hear my daughter play in the school Christmas concert and feel something besides stress. I need the Whos to start singing.

Comments That Hurt: Welfare on the Web

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words about welfare hurt.

Once in a while, the topic of welfare breaks out somewhere on the Internet or at the corner market. A case in point is the recent post “My Time at Wal-Mart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform,” that recounts the usual horror stories about welfare abusers. Thousands of comments followed–everything from heart-wrenching stories of people who need help to vitriolic comments that welfare assistance should consist only of bread and water and “low-cost” meats. I’m grateful the authors added in that last, but what does it mean? Cat food perhaps?

These comments are discouraging. This morning, the headlines stated that 146.4 million Americans now fall into the low-income category, defined by the Census Bureau as earning $44,405 annually for a family of four. Another 49.1 million are below the poverty level of $22,314 annually. Are we to believe all these people are lazy and uneducated? The average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit (formerly known as Food Stamps) in 2011 is estimated to be $133.84 per month. In 2010, the amount was $133.79. I doubt most people are living large on that.

Here are some of the comments that irritate me the most:

I saw a women (or man) in line and she (or he) had a cart full of steak and lobster (or expensive cakes or shrimp or pick your favorite costly food.)

I get that we want people to wisely spend the money we provide. We don’t want them to receive luxuries we can’t afford ourselves. But you can’t know someone’s situation by looking at their cart. I’ve bought soda with my EBT card when my children were required to donate to a school party or the Boy Scout potluck. This situation comes up frequently, and I’m not willing to make my children explain to the organizers why they can’t participate. I’ve also bought steak with my card–our first beef in three years. And I bought not only one turkey; I bought two, because at Thanksgiving they are a cheap source of protein worth many meals. For that matter, steak can be cost-effective if stretched as an ingredient in a stir-fry or casserole.

I’d also like to point out the situation many poor people are in. Often those food benefits represent their only available luxury. If you can never go out or buy anything new, food takes on greater importance. That cake might be someone’s only birthday present. That coffee might be brewed for a gathering that is someone’s only social life. That candy bar might be a treat to look forward to after a long day of getting turned down for job after job. That steak might be a special dinner for a family that can no longer afford movies or cable or vacations.

Lastly, I’d like the commenters to consider the remedies for what they see as an abuse. We could allow only “nutritious” foods. But who gets to decide what qualifies? Who will police it? Some of the current guidelines are already arbitrary and ridiculous. For example, I could buy an uncooked pizza at Papa Murphy’s with my benefits, but not a cooked one from Pizza Hut. In reality, restricting the amount of the benefit curtails much of the junk food abuse. On $133 per month, if I’m buying steak and lobster and potato chips, I’m going to go hungry most days after one great meal.

I saw a lady pay with food stamps while talking on her iPhone.  She then went out to the parking lot and got into her new Cadillac (BMW, Prius, etc.)

Okay, again you don’t know the person’s situation. In my case, I drive a fairly new Prius. I paid for it when times were better with cash, like all the vehicles I’ve owned. I suppose I could sell the Prius and buy a used car, but then I’d pay twice as much for gas and up my repair bills. That cell phone might have come with a locked-in two-year plan that someone acquired before losing a job. Those new clothes could be a gift or a lucky find from Goodwill. The point is you can’t tell by looking.

I saw a guy who had thousands of dollars in EBT benefits on his grocery receipt.

Be grateful if a large EBT amount shows on the grocery receipt. (The balance in the account is printed on each receipt.) Unused benefits roll over from month-to-month. So if you see a large balance, that person is trying not to spend your money.

 ” . . . ask yourself if you’re a drain on the system. If you are, then shut up and go find a job. Any job. Get off your butt and actually do something.”

Many, many people who receive food assistance work, often long hours for low pay. Or they might be in our situation, with a struggling business in an industry that’s gone belly-up. We’ve spent our savings so that our employees (that’s you bragging about your iPad and phone and other luxuries) could get a paycheck. Other recipients are unemployed and seeking work. Jobs are difficult to find as evidenced by the national unemployment rate of 8.6%–a number that does not include the 8.5 million people working part-time because they couldn’t find anything better. Which leads to the next comment.

Why don’t you move to North Dakota and snag one of the plentiful jobs in the oil fields?

First, I know nothing about drilling. Second, I own a house that I would need to sell or rent in a dead real estate market. Third, we would have to abandon our remaining employees and business. Fourth, I guess I could take our tent and live in it, but otherwise moving would mean new costs for housing. Not a practical solution.

If you don’t work, don’t eat.

This suggestion has some obvious downsides. I’m assuming the gentleman who made the comment doesn’t want to pay added health costs or funeral expenses. Even if you are judgemental enough to want to punish people who aren’t making it, do you want to punish their children also? Oh wait, that leads to the last comment.

“’CAN’T FEED ‘EM, DON’T BREED ‘EM!’ Such a great motto! I just wish more Americans would adopt this same type of thinking.”

All I can say to this one is “ow.” Should you have children if you can’t provide for them? No. But should parents who need welfare feel guilty because they have children? Trust me, if your child is asking you why you can’t turn the heat up when they’re cold, you feel guilty enough.