The Stigma of Public Assistance: Coming from A Beneficiary

Ever know someone receiving public assistance that is working, going to school, volunteering or all of the previous? The stigma in America is that most people on public assistance are lazy, moochers, lack motivation and expect a handout. But is that really the case?

We have many people receiving public assistance such as Food Stamps (aka SNAP benefits) that just a few years ago would have never imagined they would be in the position to be in need of assistance. Many middle class families have lost their jobs, their homes, their cars, their livelihood. Yet, Americans continue to voice their harsh, close minded opinions of people on public assistance.

Chances are, most Americans have never set foot in a public housing project, subsidized apartment complex or in the home of a family who has fell on hard times and possess a SNAP card.

One inspiring single mom, I will refer to as Jenn is tired of the stigma associated with being a SNAP beneficiary. Jenn says that most of the time the issue has been brought up on Facebook, which has at times resulted in her deactivating her account because close friends and family who know her will stir up the issue anyways even though they know people like her who have worked hard towards being independent.

Ten years ago Jenn would have never imagined herself being on what was then, Food Stamps. She was a married, stay at home mom of two children, a girl and a boy, living the American Dream. Jenn & her family lived in a middle class neighborhood in a tri-level house, fenced in backyard with a swing set and two dogs.

In 2004, that American Dream came to crashing end. Her now ex-husband lost his job of 11 years in part because he had recently been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder, severe depression. Jenn took over the reigns and worked two jobs for about six months before friends and family pleaded with her to change direction in her life and focus on taking better care of herself and her two young children. It was a hard pill to swallow with her because she had worked hard to keep her family together and to build something she had never had yet always dreamed of.

Her now ex-husband had been quite emotionally, mentally abusive for a time. He was an alcoholic as well as an on and off again drug addict on top of his recent diagnosis of Bi-Polar disorder. The only way Jenn could recover from the years of turmoil was to break away and start over.

Fast forward to today. Jenn has accomplished a lot although she feels at times discouraged. For the last two years she and her oldest son and just recently, her daughter (her oldest child) has been living in a subsidized apartment complex. She says that just living where she is at also has a stigma attached to it, mostly because of past issues which she says have been mostly eliminated thanks in part to an apartment manager who has aggressively changed things.

In late 2004 Jenn lost her job because her boss chose to take advantage of the fact he could fire employees without any reason, which was devastating to her family. However, she was able to receive unemployment assistance.

A year later, Jenn gave birth to another son, Hunter. By then Jenn had been forced to move into public housing. At that point she felt like she had hit rock bottom. But Jenn had plans to make it a temporary thing. In January 2006 she started classes at her local community college, full time. When she realized that dependable child care was a major issue during her first semester in college, she took advantage of online courses offered through her college. Every semester Jenn was a full time student. Several semesters she made the honor roll, something she had never done in middle or high school.

A year and a half later, Jenn transferred to a 4-year university, still taking courses online. After a year and a half of having challenges working with her advisor, she once again transferred to another 4 year university where she and her oldest son also moved to, 100 miles away from friends and family. That was something Jenn had never done in her life.

See, prior to her second transfer, Jenn HAD a job that last for nine months. It unfortunately was eliminated because of the economy. Jenn’s ex husband had also quit paying child support, so Jenn was forced to pack up her belongings and put most of it in storage and move to her mom and step dad’s home. There, Jenn and her boys were forced to sleep on the front porch even when the weather got down to 25 degrees. Many nights Jenn shed tears of discouragement and frustration. During the day though, Jenn persevered, determined she would finish college.

What gave her a boost was being granted housing from the second 4 yr university she transferred to.

In May 2010, Jenn graduated from college. Her hopes had been that she would have a job soon after graduating college to avoid having to move back home and possibly move back in with her family. After applying to 50+ jobs around graduation time, she came to the realization she would have to go back home.

Jenn was extremely discouraged. Here she had a piece of paper that she had worked very hard for and yet that paper could not get her a decent paying job to get her on her feet and off of public assistance. Even back at home, Jenn continued to apply to jobs and she got two interviews. One though wanted to pay her a mere $.50 more an hour than a high school graduate. Her best friend created a budget for her and determined if she took the job she would be worse off than her current situation. The other job chose someone else.

Instead of giving in, Jenn kept on trying, even applying to places like Toys R Us and fast food restaurants to no avail. Finally Jenn decided she would look into going to grad school. Jenn found an online grad school that she could start soon after her application and financial aid paperwork was completed. She felt it was better than sitting around doing nothing.

Jenn has continued to work hard in grad school and will be completing her Masters in June 2013.

She is still living in a subsidized apartment complex with hopes that sometime next year she will be gainfully employed and living a better place for her family. Meanwhile she and her family live off of her student loan disbursements and any money she earns doing odd jobs or errands for friends and family.  In the meantime, Jenn is not sitting down feeling sorry for herself.

She has been a band booster president for one of her children’s school bands, she has been a room mom, co-room mom, a parent volunteer, chaperone, concession worker, fall festival booth worker at all three of her kids’ schools. On the adult level, Jenn joined a community service organization two years ago to gain experience but also to spend time with her 86 year old grandfather who has been a member for nearly 40 years.

Jenn has been secretary of the club, going on her third year. Last year she was also asked to be the Lt. Governor for the middle and high school clubs.

The one thing though that stays with Jenn is the stigma that beneficiaries of public assistance do nothing to better themselves. She has gotten to the point she doesn’t like to go grocery shopping although she has some preference to where she goes based on the cashiers attitudes towards customers. Jenn says that many cashiers, especially the young ones usually change their attitude towards her when she tells them she will be using her food stamp card. Many times she has wanted to speak out, but because of her quiet nature she typically walks away saying nothing.

Jenn figures one day it will happen, that she will be in a place to defend herself. She says that she figures most of the time she has more education than the cashiers so it just goes to show their education obviously hasn’t taught them to be more open minded.

In about six months Jenn will be finishing up her last course of her grad school which helps her stay focused. Her hope is that through sharing her story, people will step back and see that there are some people who are making a difference, who are being productive and setting goals to get off of public assistance. Perhaps those who choose to stigmatize will have a change of heart and realize that there are people who are deserving.

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