Food Stamps And Needing Help Is No Laughing Matter

April 1, 2015  |  

Earlier this week, a story began to float around about a former Chief of Operation for a medical company who now finds himself barely making it on food stamps.

As reported by FOX 59, 37 year old Adam Smith used to work for a Tucson Arizona-based medical manufacturer, making $200,000 a year. However he had been fired after he posted a video of himself on YouTube chastising a Chick-fil-A employee for working for what he called a “hateful corporation.” And he has been unable to find work since the summer of 2012.

If you recall, the CEO of the popular chicken sandwich fast food restaurant had openly discussed his opposition to gay marriage, which sparked nationwide protest against the food chain, including Smith’s ill-advised protest video.

And as the news station reports:

“After Smith posted the video to YouTube, he returned to work where he was fired that day. A receptionist told him that their voicemail was completely full of bomb threats.

Smith and his family then moved to Portland where he got another job as a CFO. But he was fired two weeks later after they found out who he was. Since then, he has been unable to find work.

“I don’t regret the stand I took, but I regret… the way I talked to her,” Smith said.”

And yet the CEO of Chick-fil-A is still gainfully employed and living high off of the hog…er, I mean spicy chicken sandwiches. I guess the freedom of speech that anti-gay rights activists always like to tout when you call them out on their shit, is only available to them.

You can watch the video here. As you can see, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, the entire moment was more awkward than it was abusive. And in all honesty, I have no idea why he was fired considering that the only one who appeared to be hurt in this entire exchange was Smith himself, who looked like a total douchebag. If he really wanted to take a stand, he should have taken his complaints to the CEO himself, and not a $10 bucks-an-hour employee. But shit happens. We all (or many of us) have been fired before for dumb and superficial reasons. I know I have…

But what bothers me more about this story is how gleeful and amused folks have been while passing this story around. Folks find it funny that a man and his family have gone from American Express cards to an EBT card. I have read statuses on Facebook and other social media sites, mocking this family’s circumstances, like “ha-ha, that’s what he gets,” and “ha-ha, he’s on welfare…”

But there is nothing funny about needing help. On the contrary, it is actually quite humbling. As an able-bodied adult who wants to work but can’t find suitable employment, it is not easy admitting to the world, let alone yourself, that you must take a hand-out. And I’ve been there. I was there as a full-time college student who, in spite of working nearly 40 hours a week, still couldn’t manage to pay for school expenses, rent, utilities and groceries at the same time. And again in my twenties, when my first post-graduate job left me woefully underpaid and living back at home with mom. And again, most recently, when I lost my job at non-profit, which ran out of funding, and I was unable to pay most of my bills.

In each one of those situations, I was faced with the uncomfortable position of needing to ask for help. On one of those occasions I did ask. It was at the insistence of my best friend who couldn’t watch me struggling in tears anymore as I tried, in vain, to find ways to pay my mortgage and eat at the same time. But in spite of my desperation and clear need, I resisted at first.

I would like to say it was just pride. Like many Americans, I have internalized the belief that to struggle financially, is indeed noble. I had taken pride in being able to pull myself up by the boot straps even when I was boot-less. And I saw it as a character-flaw to ask for help. But foolish pride aside, it was the stigma around public assistance, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps, which acted as its own deterrent in itself.

That’s because in our culture, we see and treat those who use public assistance as lazy and shiftless. And I’m not just talking about the right wing, which has done a pretty good job of villainizing the poor and painting mothers in need as “welfare queens.” But also those of us who should know better, but hide our biases behind anecdotal stories about welfare cheating cousins and strangers we see in the supermarket “frivolously” spending money on crab legs, hoagies and other non-essential food items.

As someone who had grown up on public assistance, I have first-hand experience dealing with the marginalization. I remember the embarrassment I felt, very well, the first time Mom sent me to the corner, Korean grocery store with a stack of booklet of stamps, or fake money, to buy food. I remember the kids laughing and pointing at me because I had to eat the freebie lunch at school when Mom, who was working a low-wage job taking care of mentally-ill people, was too poor to even afford lunch meat. And I also remember watching a total stranger suck her teeth and hiss in the direction of my Mom for being shiftless as she paid for our shared birthday cake (our birthdays are only 8 days a part) with food stamps, although that cake would be the only celebration we would have that year.

I remember being a child, swearing to myself that I would starve first before finding myself on public assistance. And I did everything I could – everything that society told me I should do – to make that a reality, including going to college, not having children out of wedlock and being fiscally responsible. But as I said earlier, shit happens. And according to CNS News from earlier this year, that shit is happening to more Americans than we care to believe.

More specifically, the news site reported last year that the number of Americans receiving food stamps has exceeded 46,674,364, which is about the population of Spain. This is compared to the average participation rate in 1969, which stood at 2,878,000. That is an increase of 1516.96 percent. And according to this article in the Huffington Post, “more than three times as many SNAP households had members who were employed as compared to those who relied solely on SNAP benefits for food.” Moreover, “In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found that “trafficking,” a fraudulent activity commonly cited in the media, where SNAP benefits are sold for cash, has decreased from 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits in 1993 to about 1 cent per dollar of benefits — a significant decline.”

Eventually I would bite the bullet, acknowledge my place among the invisible poor and fill out the application for assistance. I got food stamps as well as free medical care. And although folks looked at me strange when I pulled out my card to pay for groceries, I was happy that the safety net was there to catch me at a time when I was seriously in need of a helping hand. Plus, eating food is actually quite nice.

However we feel about Adam Smith’s personal actions that day, we should all know that public assistance is not punishment or karma. It is not something that happens to people because they were bad, dishonest or even criminal. Public assistance is just that: assistance. And as the Republicans persist in its aggressive war against the poor, particularly villainizing and actually cutting services to those receiving public assistance, we should be sharing stories around about how we can work to protect one of this country’s greatest public services – and not use it as a tool of humiliation.

I’m sure this Adam Smith will eventually bounce back. People are resilient. Plus, he is a White man. Somebody will hire him. Perhaps he could go work for a non-profit, which supports gay rights. He has already proven himself a martyr for the cause. Or perhaps his first-hand experience seeing how the other half lives, including and likely the $10 bucks an-hour employee he berated, will go work for on behalf of the poor. Lord knows, we can use more vocal advocates.


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