Image: “Making Gold,” by Richard Nickel, drawing/digital art, 10×8 in., 2019
This is How You Get off Food Stamps
By Claire Robbins
First you will need to get on them. This is easy: move out of your mother’s house, live in a patched green army tent on the wrong side of town. Get pregnant. Forget who the father of your unborn child was but remember the shape of his nose. Go to the Department of Human Services dressed in anything at all.
Fill out the required paperwork to get on food stamps, Medicaid, cash assistance, and subsidized rent. Turn down the Obama phone. Ask your mother to buy you a TracFone but tell her not to call because it will use up your minutes.
Move into the HUD apartment. You have no furniture but take your pick from the side of the road when your neighbors get evicted. Furnish the one-bedroom apartment with two couches—neither of which smell like cat piss—a fold-up card table, three stacked milk crates, three wooden dining room chairs, a ripped welcome mat, a crib mattress with stains but no bad smell, and a dresser missing knobs.
Take the knobs off a pile of drawers someone left by the side of the road and screw them into your dresser. You are still on food stamps; being thrifty does not change that.
Go shopping at the convenience store around the corner. They take food stamps. Buy milk, bread, and Slim Jims. You think next time you will take the bus to the grocery store.
Meet with a caseworker at the Department of Human Services about the conditions of cash assistance. Take the forms you will be required to fill out in order to provide evidence of your job search. Go to one required meeting about work ethic before you land a job in the kitchen at Big Boy. You are ecstatic; this is your first job since corn de-tasseling as a thirteen-year-old.
You make seven dollars and forty cents an hour and work twenty-seven hours a week. You no longer qualify for cash assistance or subsidized housing, but you still qualify for food stamps, which is good because you can’t afford food after you pay the rent.
Move to a studio apartment four blocks away from the HUD apartment. Pay four hundred twenty-five dollars a month, all utilities included. If you walk to the convenience store or the bus stop, tell the little boy drug dealers that you don’t need anything when they ask.
Get free baby clothes from an organization that tries to convince pregnant women not to get abortions. Assure them that you are pro-choice, whatever good that is, you just couldn’t afford a four-hundred-seventy-five-dollar abortion. Watch their faces crumple.
Anyway, your pregnancy is too far along now.
Think about the nature of choice. You may have had, at one point, a choice to be something other than what you are now. But when was that? In middle school, when you asked your mother to buy you five DARE shirts so you could wear one every day to school? At eighteen, when you got two misdemeanors? In the tent, when the man whose last name you didn’t know came inside of you and you said, “Oh, daddy.” Think about how all of the choices you have ever made have compounded into the place without a choice you are in now. Fail to recognize anything that stretches in front of you as a choice.
Find out about the WIC program. They give low-income, pregnant women vouchers to buy tuna fish and cereal. This way, you can sell your food stamps and still eat something.
This is how you sell your food stamps: find a neighbor or coworker who needs food. Everyone you know needs food for various reasons. Go to the store with them and buy them an agreed-upon amount of food, maybe fifty dollars’ worth with your food stamps. Once you get outside the grocery store, they pay you cash for the groceries, but not the amount you spent. You might get twenty-five dollars in cash for buying someone fifty dollars’ worth of groceries with your food stamps. Everyone benefits.
Or, if you are desperate for cash and only have food stamps and say you don’t have bus fare to get to work tomorrow, buy soda pop with your food stamps. In the individual cans, not the two-liter bottles. Take the pop cans outside and open each can. If there is a bum in the parking lot, offer them a drink; otherwise, dump each can of pop out onto the blacktop. Watch the liquid swirl into the cracks of the cement. Don’t drink the pop, because you are trying to eat healthy for the baby. You have stopped buying Slim Jims too. Then take the empty pop cans back inside the store and turn them in for the deposit. This is more dignified than poking around in trash cans in the park for cans and bottles, like you have seen some people do, although it is less dignified than selling the food stamps.
Go to your prenatal appointments. Read all the literature they hand you about fetal development. Study it. Go to the public library, but this time not to wash up in the bathroom sinks like you did when you lived in the tent. Look at the books about pregnancy. Check out three books on pregnancy and two cookbooks, mostly because you like the pictures and you are hungry.
Realize that it is cheaper to buy beans and rice than bread and milk. Start buying sweet potatoes and carrots. You are still on food stamps, but you are healthy.
Find a library book in which a well-off woman goes undercover to live like the poor in America live. Throw the book across the room before you finish reading it. Decide to go to community college after the baby is born.
Call your mother and ask her if she will watch your baby so you can keep working at Big Boy and start taking classes. Tell her to fuck herself when she says no. Your mother thinks you need to learn from your mistakes. She thinks you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Try to locate your daughter’s father without his last name. No one on the street seems to understand who you are talking about, and no one you ask has ever seen a nose like the one on your daughter’s face.
Your aunt tells you she will watch the baby while you work.
Go back to work. File your taxes.
Buy a very used car with your tax return. Try to get the Department of Human Services caseworker to explain how a childcare subsidy works.
They say you would have to be accepted to a preapproved program at the community college. Call the community college and ask about the programs. The only preapproved programs at the local community college are nursing and radiology. You cannot go into either program, because the hospital will not hire anyone with a misdemeanor.
You are still on food stamps and WIC. You breastfeed your daughter so you can sell the cans of formula WIC gives you to your neighbors, who sell their food stamps to pay rent. All of a sudden, you are moving up in life.
WIC also has a program where you can get twenty-five dollars’ worth of local produce free from the farmer’s market. You have never been to the market, but you sign up for the program so you can eat some fruit. They have peaches. Buy twenty-five dollars’ worth of peaches. The flesh is more delicious than anything you have ever tasted; juice runs down your wrists, and you lick it off. You eat peaches for three days.
Discover that you can also use your food stamps at the farmer’s market. Check out more cookbooks from the library so you can learn how to cook other vegetables.
Take a placement test at the community college. Your neighbor says she will watch the baby one night a week if you cook her dinner two nights a week. She doesn’t have kids, but she has cats, and you never smell weed over there.
Score a perfect score on the English portion of your community college placement test. Catholic school paid off, but you are still on food stamps.
You can use your food stamps to buy seeds and vegetable plants from the farmer’s market. Buy a tomato plant to put on your porch. Check out a book from the library about gardening.
Register for an astronomy class at the community college. This will count as a science credit. During the day, you work at the Big Boy, chopping onions, pumping your breastmilk in the front seat of your 1997 Ford Festiva over your lunch break. You get home and cook, rock the baby, nurse the baby, water your tomato plant, and read. The baby cries a lot, so you walk in circles with her around the apartment. Once, you put her down and run outside under the streetlights and scream as loud as your lungs can, over and over and over. There are people outside, but no one looks in your direction. You stop screaming and go back into the apartment. The baby is still crying. Now, you are crying. You pick her up and apologize to her. You think maybe she is just hungry.
One night a week, you sit in a classroom, trying to fulfill your science requirement. If you fulfill enough requirements, you can transfer to the large, public university someday.
Get a small financial aid check from the community college. Fail astronomy because you feel weepy away from the baby. You can’t concentrate. It is too hard to do homework at the public library.
One of your co-workers refers to your school as “the free money school.” He registers for classes just to get the financial aid check and then never attends, and he doesn’t understand why you feel like you need to pass the class.
Register for astronomy again the next semester; also take a creative writing class. Write a poem about how you lived in a tent in the city with a man whose last name you never knew. Blush when the instructor tells you it is the best student poem he has read in ten years teaching. Pass astronomy with a B the second time through. You are still on food stamps.
Keep working, taking transfer credits, and reading cookbooks.
Sink your student loans into your car. Trade five cans of formula for a twenty-year-old ten-speed bike.
Buy a baby seat to attach to the back of your bike. Bike around town all summer long. The baby never cries when she is riding in the bike seat, and your thighs feel huge, powerful.
Save your substantial tax returns for three years under your mattress. If you keep the money in the bank, the Department of Human Services will say you don’t qualify for food stamps. Between writing papers and studying at the library, research a program to help low-income families buy Habitat for Humanity houses. You have to have the down payment for the house and take eight months of home repair classes at the community center.
Register for the home repair classes. Attend each one, even when you are sick with the flu. Take notes.
Your income is too low to qualify for the program to buy a Habitat house. Ask your mother if she will cosign for you. She won’t.
Consider quitting school and getting two more part-time jobs.
Your aunt says she will cosign the loan for you. You can afford the payments. There are three Habitat houses you can choose from. One is right next to the HUD apartments where you used to live, one is close to the community college—but no yard—and the third is about a mile from the public library, not in a good neighborhood, but right on the edge of one, and there is a medium-size yard. You have to help a team finish building the house. This is supposed to teach you to work hard and value hard work as the path to financial stability. Instead, it teaches you that even well-meaning people are condescending.
Move in. Realize you can wash your entire house and your laundry with baking soda that you buy with your food stamps. Hang the laundry up to dry.
Don’t turn on the lights. Keep the heat at fifty degrees in the winter, because now you have to pay utilities. The baby wears a hat and seems warm enough. She has never been sick in her life. Most of the other babies you see seem diseased.
You didn’t really budget for utilities, and you don’t have enough money. It is a three-bedroom house, so you get two roommates. Charge them two hundred fifty dollars each a month and don’t report this income to the Department of Human Services or the IRS. The roommates are both college students and don’t seem to mind how loud your daughter is. You consider renting out the basement, the garage, your bed. Your mortgage is four hundred forty-five dollars a month; utilities are over five hundred dollars a month in the winter.
You are still on food stamps, but you don’t know anyone to sell them to anymore, since you’ve moved out of the neighborhood. Plus, you are only feeding your daughter organic food, so you are using up all of your food stamps this way. You don’t eat very much. No meat ever.
You have enough credits to transfer to the large, public university. You think you want to major in environmental studies because you like the farmer’s market.
The large, public university’s daycare charges half price for the children of students. You rent out the basement of your house so you can afford this. You still work twenty-seven hours a week at Big Boy. You take three classes a semester, and you buy a laptop with your student loans so you don’t have to do your homework at the public library or on campus. You do your homework at home after your daughter is asleep.
Your neighbor gives you her Wi-Fi password after you give her some tomatoes.
At the farmer’s market, you meet a farmer who says you can work on her organic farm in exchange for free veggies. You let your food stamp case close. You still qualify based on income, but you are feeling guilty that you have been on food stamps for four years, and you want to be more self-sufficient. You eat rice and vegetables all summer.
Your car breaks down, and you can’t afford to fix it. You can’t get out to the farm anymore. Reapply for food stamps.
Fail ecology and decide to take a creative writing class. Get an A. Find out you didn’t need to take that class because you took the equivalent at the community college.
Buy plants at the farmer’s market to plant in your yard. Watch them die. Read more books about gardening.
Get another student loan. Any time a statement comes on your student loans, shove it unopened into the top drawer of your dresser with mismatched knobs. You have never been late on your mortgage.
Go to a credit union and try to refinance your mortgage – through somewhere like SoFi – in order to take your aunt’s name off the loan. Don’t cry when the loan officer starts laughing after you tell him your income.
Don’t refinance. Give your aunt some tomatoes and help her weed her flower garden. Pick up sticks around her yard and paint her dining room.
Decide that what you should really be studying is the middle class. Take your daughter for walks in the nice neighborhood near your house. Point out the differences between the two neighborhoods to your daughter in her stroller. Look, there is a fenced-in yard and a carport. There are curtains in the window, and the lawn is cut short. Look, there are no liquor bottles smashed on the sidewalk, and see how they put their glass recyclables into city-issued bins? Soon, she will recognize these differences, and when you take her out for walks in your own neighborhood, she will say, No, Mama, I want to see the pretty houses.
Buy flour in bulk and bake bread. Calculate the cost of each square of toilet paper. Stop buying toilet paper and use washcloths. You are still on food stamps.
Read an article that details the habits of the middle class. You already get up early and make your daughter do household chores. You make homecooked meals, and you don’t buy Nike shoes. You don’t smoke cigarettes, although when you think about it, you decide that you don’t know anyone who is middle class because they don’t smoke cigarettes. You know many people living in poverty who smoke cigarettes, and if they quit, their lives might improve, but you think that what the article neglects to mention is that you cannot be middle class if your income is low, no matter how excellent your habits are.
Your mother thinks if you saved your money you could be middle class. You like to keep fifteen hundred dollars for emergencies. This does not make you middle class, and you still qualify for food stamps.
Forget about the article you read; start making your own observations. You can tell a person is middle class by the shoes they wear. Buy a used pair of Keen shoes. You are not fooling anyone.
Your daughter is four now, and you have waited too long to get a spot for a scholarship to the Montessori preschool. You can send her to Head Start or Peep. You don’t want your kid segregated based on your income, so you send her to a church preschool. She tells the teacher that she believes in God like she believes in Santa Claus. The teacher tells you some of the other parents are upset because your daughter has told their children that Santa isn’t real. Sometimes you get phone calls about her use of profanity.
You donate five dollars to NPR and listen to it constantly. You still aren’t middle class.
You even vote in the elections, on all the propositions and non-partisan issues too, not just for the president. You think it might make more sense to conscientiously object, but no one would pay any attention to you then, either. The day after the elections, your mother calls to ask if you got a free six pack along with your healthcare and cell phone after you voted for Obama.
You learned your lesson about waiting too long for preschool, so you diligently research the local public elementary schools and put your daughter on a waiting list for the best one. She gets in. Suddenly, you have most of the day free and no childcare costs.
You sell your old car and buy a used Volvo with the money you save on daycare. The front window of the dealership you buy it from is busted out, and a broken sofa sits in front of a kerosene heater. It is cold, early spring, so you sit in front of the heater while they get the papers ready. You tell your daughter not to touch the glass. You tell yourself you are living within your means.
After a week, the car breaks down, and your mechanic says it will cost three thousand dollars to fix. You just paid two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-five dollars to buy it. You park the car in the driveway and buy your daughter a second-hand bike for seven dollars and a new helmet for fourteen dollars. She is big enough to pedal her bike along the sidewalk in front of you. This will work until it snows again.
You start dating a man who sells vegetables at the farmer’s market. He doesn’t grow the vegetables, but he is in charge of the table. This way, the farmer can work at another, more profitable market. The man gets to keep any leftover, unsold produce. He shares it with you.
He also shares your dream of being middle class, and he is taking night classes to become a middle school math teacher. He has no misdemeanor charges, and he says that if he gets a job teaching math in a low-income school district, which is pretty much everywhere in the state, the government will forgive his loans. One of the habits of the middle class is that they get married.
You learn how to can the extra produce in a hot-water bath.
You have been reading books about gardening and composting, and finally, your garden starts to look like a real garden. You have kale, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, herbs, peas, sunflowers, pumpkins, and you realize that you can plant garlic cloves that you buy with your food stamps.
You buy bulk oats with your food stamps to feed chickens. You keep the chickens in the garage at night and let them walk in the yard during the day. You buy a pregnant mini goat for seventy dollars from some 4H kids. You are still not middle class, but your daughter eats organic eggs and drinks goat’s milk.
You are pregnant. You also find the boyfriend in the closet with your daughter, and she is crying. She says she was scared but won’t tell you why. He says he was just showing her a glow-in-the-dark Lego, he swears. But there is no glow-in-the-dark Lego in the closet, and you hit him as hard as you can in the side of his face.
He calls the police, and they photograph the small red blotch on the left side by his eye. You go to jail, and your mom picks up your daughter and puts the chickens in the garage. She says she will never forgive you for going to jail.
Your daughter starts seeing a counselor. They draw pictures of bodies and talk about how to handle emotions. The now ex-boyfriend doesn’t press charges and, after you are out of jail, you tell him he will never see his baby.
You don’t have the authority to tell him he can never see his baby.
Single parenting is more difficult now that you know your son’s father’s last name.
He is court-ordered to pay eighty dollars every two weeks in child support. This makes a huge difference in your budget, but with the extra kid, you still qualify for food stamps.
He has supervised visitation. You have full legal and physical custody. Your daughter starts attacking the baby. Take her in to the counselor every week instead of every other week. This is covered under her Medicaid, but the counselor is an intern, and you start wondering if she is actually making life worse for your daughter.
You add them up, and you almost have enough credits to graduate with a degree in Creative Writing. Your poetry is mostly about your urban farm and how you felt giving birth to your children, and one professor describes it as cloying and immature. When you go to her office to talk about your writing, she tells you writing poetry isn’t for everyone; in fact, it is for very few people. But, she says, have you considered a career in nursing?
The only class you still need is a biology lab. You don’t want to take it. Start writing Food StampEconomy. It’s a guide on how to live well in poverty. Fuck the middle class.
You don’t know anything about publishing, so you put the book up on a blog. It becomes a hit with the online do-it-yourself crowd. It is mentioned on other websites alongside The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving. Sometimes, people write violent comments online against you and your family. Try not to read them. You cannot help but read one thread that says, This welfare queen needs to be shot in the cunt before she does any more damage to the economy, and another that says, It’s dirty indifferent bull dykes like this that ruin America for the rest of us. Do not make a list of these insults, and if you do, try not to let them run through your mind throughout the day, or at the checkout lane, in the grocery store, as you pay for bulk olive oil with your food stamps.
You begin to think some of your suggestions in Food Stamp Economy might not be legal.
Start breeding mini-goats. Tell animal control they are a rare breed of dog. The chickens are legal.
You are still on food stamps. Register for the biology lab. Your aunt will watch the baby. The instructor is a grad student. On the outside, you look exactly like everyone else in the class, except you don’t have an iPhone and you aren’t hungover, but on the inside, you are a maverick urban farming entrepreneur. You know more about plants than the instructor. She falls in love with you. You are still on food stamps.
Actually, so is she, but she only qualifies in the summer when she doesn’t get funding.
She sits on your back porch and drinks homemade herbal teas. She blushes while you breastfeed your son. She says she loves your mini-goats. She loves your compost pile. She loves how you wash your hair with baking soda.
You tell her you won’t sleep with her until the semester is over. She gives you an A.
Your mother tells you if you had gone into a nursing program, you would have graduated years ago. You would no longer qualify for food stamps. You have a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing now, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. You frame it and set it on the dresser. You apply for a job as a secretary. It starts at minimum wage. They don’t call you back. You read an article that says a single mother with two kids would have to make nineteen dollars an hour and work forty hours a week in order not to qualify for any government subsidies.
You start making herbal goat soap and selling your chickens’ eggs. You sell tomatoes and kale. People complain about the prices you charge. You quit Big Boy and start working four nights a week waitressing at a bar. Your girlfriend watches the kids while she grades papers. She is thinking about moving in. You are still on food stamps.
You tell your girlfriend that you won’t cohabitate with her because the last time you cohabitated, your boyfriend most likely molested your daughter. You tell her you want to get married or she can find someone else to move in with. You show her an article that says cohabitating is one habit of low-income households.
You cannot get legally married.
Your girlfriend begins drinking more. She drops out of her program because she doesn’t make enough progress on her dissertation. She loses her teaching job. She drinks even more. At first, this is fun, but you are still breastfeeding your youngest, so you don’t ever have more than one beer to her nine.
She is also on antidepressants and becomes unresponsive at times. You do not trust her watching your kids anymore, so you quit your waitressing job. You call Big Boy, but they filled your old position.
Your girlfriend gets evicted from her apartment and tells you she will kill herself if you do not let her move in. She mails you the receipt from the gun she buys.
Do not let her move in. Do not answer her phone calls. Change your locks and don’t answer the door.
Start selling your raw goat milk illegally. Sell your plasma twice a week at fifteen dollars a pop. If you were fifty pounds heavier, the plasma donation center would pay you twenty-five dollars each time. Everyone else in line for plasmapheresis is fat. Maybe you have everything wrong and you should stop eating organic produce and go to the free food distribution programs that give away expired baked goods from Walmart. Maybe you should start smoking weed and drinking half-pints of five o’clock vodka. Really, it doesn’t matter at all, because you begin to think that you will always be poor.
Your roommates move out, one after the other, because your kids are too loud. Your ex-boyfriend gets a lawyer. He wants to take custody of your son. You think maybe your son would be better off away from you. You think you probably should have had abortions instead of children, and there must be something inherently wrong with poor women who procreate young or at all. Your ex-boyfriend is a math teacher now. He is married with a baby on the way. You think you cannot really remember what happened that day in the closet. Maybe there was a Lego glowing in the dark.
You sell the broken-down Volvo out of your driveway to a scrap dealer. On the phone, he says he will give you three hundred dollars for a car with a metal body that doesn’t run. When he comes to load it up, it starts. He drives it away, leaving you with three hundred dollars.
You think maybe you should walk away from the mortgage. Sell the animals and the furniture and ride a train off to the promised land, but you are already in America.
Rent the extra bedroom out to a family from El Salvador. They are even louder than your family, and the grandmother watches your baby while you work your new job in a meat processing plant.
You are raising your chickens and your mini-goats humanely. You respect their animal spirits. When a chicken gets sick or it is time to slaughter a buckling, you sprinkle tobacco on the ground, you say a prayer. You let the does nurse their kids. Your animals have food and water and enough space. You buy two empty lots adjacent to your property for twenty dollars each through a program in your city to reduce urban blight. The lots are fenced, and you lock the animals up carefully every night. You turn on a boom box and play country western music outside at night to scare off predators, and in the winter, you put heat lamps and space heaters in the garage. You shovel paths for the animals to walk down, and you make sure the water does not freeze.
At night, at your new job, you wear rubber boots, and blood flows up to your calves. You spray the bodies of cattle with ammonia.
You think you are happy with your life. You can be happy like this, providing for your family. You are still on food stamps, but you begin to consider that you don’t really need them. You can grow more vegetables, maybe raise rabbits for meat. You find a flyer at your mother’s house. She is planning to buy a flock of geese so a family in Vietnam can become self-sufficient.
You buy one hundred dollars’ worth of canned goods with your food stamps from Walmart that you donate to the food pantry. You let your food stamp case close, and you don’t reapply. You are off food stamps.
Claire Robbins serves as the creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.