Thanks to a new reader over at For the Love of Food I’ve decided I should probably break from talking about my kids for a moment and talk to everyone about what life is really like for our family. It’s easy for people to take the view of our family I’ve given and see my kids for being bright and creative. It’s easy for people to tell me that I’m a great mom. At the same time I have a lot of doubts. I feel like people don’t really get it. I’m not sure that it’s entirely helpful that people do get it, but it’s something that’s been weighing on my mind.
Thinking about our lives, it’s never been easy. We’ve constantly had to be juggling want versus need and I’ve found it all too easy to be upset, even angry at other people when they seem to take the luxuries in their lives for granted. It’s easy to say, “I don’t feel like cooking, let’s order out.” When something breaks, they just replace it. Stopping at a store can mean splurging on things that aren’t on the shopping list. It’s so easy to just pick up a movie or some new accessory. I’ve tried not to get upset over this, especially when my friends make suggestions like stopping for coffee or grabbing a bite out. It hurts to say, “No, I can’t afford it right now.” Often times it’s meant getting creative with my budget so I don’t have to let other people see how challenging it is. I don’t want people to feel bad for me. I don’t want pity. Honestly, I think what I want most of all is a series of policy changes so that no one ever has to live like this.
So, what is it like? Well, let’s start with housing. We’ve had to live with friends or family more often than I want to admit. Getting out from under that situation meant getting creative with saving money. First month’s rent and a security deposit aren’t exactly cheap. We’re highly limited in the places we can live and have even had to sacrifice with having three of our children share the same bedroom because we could only afford a two bedroom. I’ve been evicted twice in my life, which is absolutely terrifying. Because of our low income we’ve had to sacrifice with living in places with shady management in less than ideal neighborhoods.
I really can’t complain too much. We landed in this trailer park, which isn’t bad in comparison to the rest. There have been a few drunk driving incidents. A couple trailers down is a family where the parents are meth-heads, but they keep to themselves. The kids are generally prone to running wild and have no respect for anyone’s property. I wouldn’t even blame them. A lot of them have parents that are worn too thin or too busy trying to make ends meet to put much energy into raising their kids. I understand. I’ve been there at times too.
Our trailer isn’t much to speak of either. The kids’ bathroom is quirky. The sink has next to no water pressure and barely comes out as a trickle. Their bath tub has a working shower head, but there’s no way to change it over to a faucet. The master bathroom has a garden tub that doesn’t sit well in the floor, so every time you use it there’s a puddle left where it won’t drain. The standing shower stall door doesn’t shut well, which means it leaks all over the floor, or you feel like you’re trapped and can’t get out when you;re done. The kitchen sink has a leak under the left side of the drain. The tile on the kitchen floor doesn’t want to stay stuck down. The refrigerator door is loose, which means you’ve got to try extra hard to get the door to shut well enough to keep food cold. The back door doesn’t seal well and looks as though you could just yank it open without unlocking it. Ants and other bugs get in there, including the occasional wasp. The front door doesn’t fit well so you need to kick the bottom of it from the inside, or give it an extra hard yank from the outside. None of our closets have doors. There are cracks and gaps in unexpected places. The ceiling in the living room looks like it’s had some water damage, and the window AC/heater in Corde’s room causes water to come into the wall every time it rains. This is what bottom of the barrel gets you, and it’s sadly a step up from our last trailer.
Every month we play the “what bill can we put off” game. Sure, some of that’s because of expenses we probably could have lived without. We didn’t expressly need a television and PS3. Without them our view of the world becomes even more limited, which is a definite down side for unschooling. It also provides salvation from boredom. We feel the extra monthly payment is worth it for the sanity it brings in the end. We’re paying for a washer and dryer right now, a payment that actually costs less than taking our laundry to be washed somewhere. That’s not even counting the cost of finding someone to take us to do laundry. We’re paying off a stove because our trailer didn’t come with one. We can’t use it right now because no one informed us that we needed a conversion kit, so we’ve got to save up for that. Why are we paying these things off instead of getting them second hand? Well, we’ve had problems with second hand washers and dryers in the past. I also didn’t want to mess around with a gas stove. At least we know these things work and if they stop working, the company is responsible for fixing them. The computer was bought so I could run my business, and the internet was to make that more possible. Then the internet also had a side benefit of helping me look for freelance writing jobs, of which I haven’t been able to land anything. That money, should I ever start making it, will go towards the craft budget for me and the kids. I need more yarn for winter and the embroidery projects keep me sane. The rest of it is all quite necessary. We can’t afford to have our water turned off or our electricity cut. We certainly can’t afford to lose our home. This is why we’re still without a car.
Living down here on the bottom we’re very careful about what we spend and what we do. We rarely leave the house to go further than work, the church, the store, or around the neighborhood. We just don’t have a means to get there and having four kids limits being able to get a ride. Oz even walks to work whenever he can. It’s a healthier lifestyle, sure. At the same time this makes Oz twice as tired when he gets home from work and I’m often exhausted just from trying to keep after everything. The baby keeps me up at night which makes me even more exhausted. The only time we get rides is to the grocery store once a week so we don’t have to worry about our ride deciding we just ask for too much. We always pay for gas money too. It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that much. We don’t have any “extra” to spend on luxuries, but generally we shuffle things around so we can find a way. We get energy drinks every once in a while so that we get the kick required to get daily tasks done. I’ll be honest, bad diet is a lot of the reason why my house is never clean and I’m so far behind on everything. I spend a lot of time kicking back, trying not to feel utterly and totally drained.
Food has become a bit of an issue. Our food stamps were cut as a result of Oz’s last job, but they won’t recalculate our benefits until he provides proof of income. That means he needs to be able to print out pay stubs because he doesn’t get them at work. This means having access to the internet, which we have, and a printer, which we don’t. Then he needs to get to the office to turn them in. We should get more every month, but right now I’ve calculated us to be getting somewhere around $1 per meal per person which is about average. The problem with that calculation? It doesn’t count towards snacks and growing kids. I would love to get back on WIC, but that means dragging myself and two children down to the WIC office where they’re going to get pricked to have their blood checked, weighed, measured, and if I refuse any of it, we don’t get benefits. We’ll get a few gallons of milk every month, some peanut butter, eggs, baby food before long, and a little bit of veggies. I know there are a few other things that come to mind, but you’ve got to be able to commit to appointments every three months, and when you don’t have a reliable source of transportation, that’s not exactly possible. I haven’t been able to find a way down there yet. We’ve lost our WIC benefits countless times because I just can’t keep getting to their office. It was different when we had a car.
As I’m sure you can guess, $1 per meal per day isn’t exactly great living. I’ve heard all the tips and tricks to make it stretch. Some places allow you to shop at a farmer’s market, which is cheaper and sometimes gives you bonuses. If you’re thrifty with coupons then sometimes you can make a killing in savings there. Unfortunately, our local grocery store doesn’t exactly have a lot in coupons. As for the ones you can find online, I don’t have a printer and it would cost me more than I’d save to go find a place to print them out. I used to love our old grocery store because they’d have meal savings coupons all over the place. In other words, if you bought a specific featured products you’d get the rest of the meal for free with the coupon. I loved it because it gave us a chance to try something new without terribly much risk. An expensive splurge of a meal is a lot easier to risk when you only end up paying a dollar or two for it. It would only be one or two meals a week, but it made a huge difference. They also had a lot of “buy this, get that free”. Their store was ful of free samples, which was always fantastic because it allowed us to try a lot of new things. Their store brand foods often tasted even better than their brand name counterparts. However, we live in the country now. Finding coupons for the little corner store type grocery store we have out here isn’t easy. It’s been impossible to stick to my diet. I can’t avoid dairy, soy, MSG, honey, and gluten. I can’t afford to avoid any of that without making myself extremely malnourished, or spending about three or four times my weekly food budget…and I’m breastfeeding, which makes matters worse. I can’t neglect myself or my milk will dry up and the baby will start to starve. We can’t afford formula, so we’d be doubly screwed.
On everything else we’ve learned to live lean. I haven’t bought clothing for my children, aside from the baby, in two years. All of what we’ve got now has been hand-me-downs, given to me by family, or just stuff that we’ve forced to last. Even for the baby I just bought a set of body suits and a couple gowns because we didn’t have any of the baby clothes at Oz’s father’s house. We’ve gone without furniture. Our couch was a curbside find, as was our dining room table. The older two sleep on the couch and Sander sleeps on the bed with us. We were lucky enough to score a cheap crib at a yard sale. We have a couple of things we’ve held on to over the years, but most of it has been gotten rid of as we didn’t have the help required to move it from the house and we didn’t exactly have time to find help when we were evicted. Either that or we’d be staying with friends or family and couldn’t afford to have everything in storage.
When you live at the bottom of society, everything becomes a consideration of cost. Is that dollar bar of chocolate really worth the splurge? Can you afford to spend a few extra bucks outside the food stamp budget? Is having entertainment worth the cost of that entertainment, and what it means sacrificing? It’s a constant struggle when someone doesn’t get paid as much as they thought they were going to, or if a check just doesn’t come in. We’re constantly worrying about what will happen if child support doesn’t show up that month. The last time that happened it ended up with us falling so far behind that no matter how hard we tried, our car got repossessed and we were evicted from our apartment. That was almost a year ago, right after Halloween. We’re constantly juggling things in order to make ends meet.
Living on food stamps for a week has been turned into a memorable project for many, but they don’t see what it’s really like. They don’t have their children constantly whining about being hungry when you know there’s no food. They don’t have to worry about how they’ll get to the grocery store next week, or how they can shop for as much in advance as possible. They pass around these tricks like saving your eggs and things until the later half of the week, tricks that those of us who live on food stamps can’t use. What difference does it make if I use all the eggs at the beginning of the week or the end? It’s just going to be more of the same next week. They get to go out to dinner at the end of it all, or go back to eating a normal diet, but what do I get? Another week of looking forward to eating food that isn’t great for me because it’s all we can afford, otherwise everyone will slowly be starving themselves to death. We can’t look forward to luxuries like eating out. Even our weekly doughnut trip has been canned thanks to Oz getting a pay cut. What’s worse is if we start making enough to get ourselves back on track, get out from under our bills, get a car, our food stamps get cut, which means the money we need to use to get back on track has to go to food, defeating the purpose. In other words, the system prevents people from helping themselves. It’s miserable.
In other words, trying it for a week might be a fun experiment, but it’s not going to show you what it’s really like. That’s like saying you know what it’s like to deploy to Iraq because you did a week long simulation. You can’t know what it’s like until you legitimately live it. Maybe trying it for a month, a season, a year might be a better experiment. Try it when you’ve got kids. Try doing it without all the conveniences of a middle class family, like a computer with internet connection to look up recipes or print up coupons. Try it on a dollar a meal budget for everyone in your family without money stretchers like bonus dollars at your local farmer’s market. Realize that condiments and spices will eat into your food stamp budget, even if you don’t have to buy them frequently. Then try to imagine what it’s like to have to ask a neighbor for a ride to the grocery store, maybe paying out more than it’s worth for the trip in gas money. Imagine what it’s like to also be juggling bills. Imagine not really having the time or the energy to really plan out healthy meals. Try cooking on nothing but a hot plate or a microwave. It’s not easy.
The purpose for this experiment shouldn’t be to prevent politicians from making budget cuts in this area. It should be to prove how impossible it is to live in a healthy way when living on a food stamp budget and not having any extra money to supplement it with every month. There need to be people who are willing to say, “Yeah, you can’t do this and be healthy”. The people doing the experiment need to talk to a nutritionist and find out whether or not their diet intake matched that which was required for their activity level, and to find out what the long-term health effects for eating such a diet would be. Then they need to talk to their representatives and tell them that the food allotment for families on food stamps needs to be changed so the people in these families won’t be slowly killing themselves, committing suicide by food.
I know this has been a bit of a rant, but I’ve seen a lot of blogs lately and a lot of people experimenting with the food stamp diet. They always make it sound so easy and they don’t realize what it feels like to have to live that life every single day. They can keep going when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I hear how these people are so glad to be off it in the end and how they’ve managed to find ways to allot themselves more than my family gets and they’re really not experiencing it for what it is on a national level. I get to see their relief at no longer having to live that life, yet I do and have for every day of my life for several years now, after one bad experience after another. I wish I could wake up in the morning, call it all over, and take my family out to a nice dinner out somewhere. I’d be happy to have a date night out with Oz and leave the kids at home. However, that’s not going to happen, and I have to hear other people with their trials to know what it’s like, knowing every day that they’ll never truly understand.
I don’t mean to sound angry, but it’s hard to hear people play around with the idea and how relieved they are at the end of it all when I know the end is nowhere in my near future. It’s hard to hear people talking about their experiments when they’re able to allot themselves so much more than I’m even capable of getting. Worst of all, it’s hard to hear these people experimenting when I know that they’ll have an end in sight and I’ll have to keep on wondering what I can do for my children when the food runs out. How am I going to be able to find a couple of bucks just to get a little bit more to hold us over until the next time we get our benefits? Will I be able to find the cash to make things last when everything runs out? It’s really not that easy.