How We Treat Low-Income Parents:
The warnings are making the rounds: Don’t shop the first or second of the month because that’s sometimes when benefit checks come out, and many people living in poverty need to shop then.
Skip products labeled WIC, as those are some of the (very restricted) foods that mothers or pregnant people utilizing the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children can get.
These are kind considerations — but until recently, some people felt comfortable publicly expressing annoyance at mothers trying to figure out the complicated use of WIC or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, at grocery store checkout lanes. On social media, people have cast judgment on the purchases of those on benefits: How dare they buy beef or soda, or treats for their children.
The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly altering how we treat illness, how we socialize, how we work and educate, as well as how safe or unsafe we feel. Will the pandemic also change long-held attitudes and stereotypes about people who are poor, especially single mothers: that some mothers somehow deserve poverty, or that it’s easy to receive benefits?
Will the pandemic increase empathy for parents living in poverty? If so, how long will that empathy last?
I live in rural Appalachia. When I became a mother, I soon became — not by my choice — a divorced one, raising a young child alone below the poverty line. The reasons for our struggles are complex. There are few jobs where we live, and the jobs I have been able to get, balancing several at a time, are low-paying. Finding and paying for enough child care in order to do these jobs takes all the money, time and energy I have. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to start over for single mothers, and I haven’t had the network, legal or financial support to move my small family elsewhere.
Poverty is complicated and often inexplicable. Poverty is generational. Poverty comes from divorce — which overwhelmingly punishes women financially more than men — from escaping an abusive home, from a lost job, or family death, illness or injury.
But that was poverty before the pandemic. Poverty during and because of the pandemic is simple in comparison. Everyone is losing their jobs. Everyone has child care issues. Everyone knows someone who has died. Everyone is waiting in a line for bread.
The increase in layoffs means that many people are attempting to file for unemployment, experiencing for possibly the first time the frustrating bureaucracy of trying to receive benefits.
Applying for benefits — any benefits — is complicated and invasive. A benefits application is both impersonal — sometimes you may not understand why a claim is rejected — and disturbingly personal. After the trauma of losing your marriage, losing your job, then you must go through the trauma of someone in power potentially not believing you, not trusting some of the worst events, and hardest circumstances, of your life.
My child was 7 before we received child support. When I was laid off from my full-time job as an editor last year, I was denied unemployment benefits twice before giving up; I didn’t have enough child care to keep applying. The reason for the denial finally given by the state? They said I didn’t work full-time, despite the evidence: pay stubs, letters from my former employer attesting to the 40-plus hours a week I had worked, and W-2s.