By Katie Pinke
You might have a preconceived idea of what a mom on food stamps looks like, where she lives, the mistakes she has made to get to this point in her life. But you don't really know her until you know her story.
I have been silent about food stamps for more than a decade. Only a few close friends have known I was ever on them. But hearing political candidates, politicians, commentators, colleagues, and friends comment about food stamps gets my blood boiling at times.
Today I break my silence.
I am from a Christian family, a family that prays before every meal and a family that goes to church every Sunday. Growing up, no one in my family had been divorced. My family all fit somewhere into America’s middle class. We were never rich. We lived comfortably with disposable income. We were never poor. And we certainly didn’t know anyone on food stamps.
Then along came my story. I was a teenager with a track scholarship to a major university. I was the first in my family to have a child outside of marriage. I was supported and loved, but I was in need.
As a single mother and college student trying to get child support for my son, my attorney advised me to apply for childcare assistance and food stamps. By becoming a "ward of the state," the government would then fight for me to get child support.
I would become one of them. I didn’t accept the welfare check. I could have. But instead my parents helped me with expenses, I took out student loans, and I worked different jobs to pay bills. But for a time in my life, I did accept food stamps and child care assistance. It allowed me to complete my education while raising my young son.
Was I living in the slums? No. I was living in a beautiful home that my parents owned. I lived there with my son and three roommates who split the bills with us.
Could my parents have just paid my bills? Yes. I could have lived on our family farm with them, 60 miles from my university. But at the time, my parents were dealing with their own financial losses from a flood.
I needed to be responsible for my own circumstances. Was I "lazy" and not working, living off the government "paycheck?" Absolutely not. I worked for $10 an hour in an internship. I worked every other weekend and one night a week at a grocery store bakery. I waitressed at the only local smoke-free bar and grill on the weekends when my parents could watch my son at their farm or on weeknights when my roommates would babysit.
I was a full-time student, taking classes around my work commitments. Most importantly, I was a mother of a toddler trying to make time daily to spend with him. I had a support network of my family, loyal friends, neighbors, and church.
But I also had a sense of urgency.
I needed to get my degree. I needed to provide. I needed to build a life for my son. I did not want him to be a statistic. I wanted him to be in the most loving, supportive environment possible.
Food stamps were a part of my solution to create a future for my son and me.
Food stamps helped me for two years and childcare assistance just six months longer.
Because I was in the "system" the state worked to first get me $56 a month of child support. A few years later, $266 of child support came through monthly.
Did the child support pay my rent? No. But it paid electricity. Then when I graduated from college, I earned a salary of $24,000. I had health insurance. My son was four years old.
I called my caseworker and told her I no longer needed to receive benefits. I was breaking free!
Did she congratulate me? Hardly. She expressed her concern that I would not be in need anymore. She assured me I could still probably qualify for some services. The truth is, I never wanted to go back to social services.
I never wanted to slide that food stamps card at the grocery store again. I felt shame. I felt guilt. I felt eyes staring at me. I wanted more for my son. I wanted freedom and ability to provide on my own.
Until recently, I worked in agriculture in state government. I know the "Farm" Bill is truly the "Food" Bill. You might not be impacted by the food stamp program, but you might be surprised to know all the people around you who are. We are often silent.
Should the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) be subject to cuts? Yes.
My answer might have surprised you. However, if our government is going to live within its means, we have to make cuts in all programs.
In 1970, 1 in 50 Americans received food stamps. Today 1 in 7 do. Not every one of those people is going to do what I did or have the support network and circumstances I was given. But I believe food stamp recipients need to feel a sense of urgency. They need to be encouraged to find a solution that does not require continuous government assistance.
They need to be empowered to use food stamps as a temporary step to a long-term solution; a solution that includes breaking free of social services.
I am a farm girl, a former single mom on food stamps, who wants our government to live within its means and provide temporary assistance to empower people to build and grow their destiny.
I feel the same urgency today that I felt when I wanted to provide for my son to get off food stamps, only for our country. We cannot wait. We must make the call and break free.
About the Author: Katie Pinke is from a 5th generation family farm and resides in Wishek, North Dakota with her husband and three children. She works as a consultant and speaker across North America to the food and agriculture industry. She is previously the Marketing and Information Division Director for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and prior to that she worked for ten years with AdFarm, working with agribusinesses across North America. She originally published this piece on her personal blog The Pinke Post: thepinkepost.com. You can stay connected with her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/PinkePost or Twitter: www.twitter.com/katpinke