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Tuesday: Chicken soup and shame

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Carson and I don’t have what you would call high-paying jobs: He’s a seasonal firefighter and beekeeper, and I work for a non-profit organization. However, the Federal Poverty Level for a family of two in 2014-2015 is $15,730. (Because any two people making $16,000 a year are clearly doing just fine.) Comparatively, we’re a couple of aristocrats.

Although I haven’t ever officially lived at the poverty level, I’ve come close. Two years ago, I applied for food stamp benefits. At the time I was making about $1,000 a month as a freelance writer, of which I owed an 18% self-employment tax, and I didn’t qualify. It was a long and complicated process, confusing even for someone with a mastery of the English language and an ability to navigate long forms. I felt like I was under a microscope, laid bare for a government employee to gawk at, and I didn’t have anything to show for it at the end except a new respect for the humilities suffered by poverty-stricken Americans. When I subtracted rent ($450), my car payment ($150), crappy health insurance ($80), utilities ($75), and car insurance ($60), I had a whopping $185 left for the month for everything else - not counting the $180 in taxes I couldn't afford to pay. I’m blessed with safety nets and I had a credit card (hardly a good option but useful at times), so my situation wasn’t dire – though I’m still paying off that card AND the IRS. Also, since this period of underemployment was largely by choice, I was somewhat relieved when I didn’t qualify – my guilty conscience told me that this safety net was not for me. Still, I was glad then as I am now that it exists.

I have plenty of friends who have received food stamps: one was a new mother; one unexpectedly lost her job; many were Americorps volunteers. Each of these people received the benefits for a short period of time – taking advantage of a lifeline when it was needed most – before getting back to a place of self-sufficiency. When I hear about a “nanny state,” or people “living off welfare,” I am reminded of how humbling it was to be so poor and still not qualify for aid; how scary it was to face a daunting application process; and how lucky I was (and still am!) to have a boyfriend who would frequently hand me $20, without my asking for it, so I could put gas in my car or go out to lunch. I know that living off government “handouts” is no easy feat, and I can’t help but think that any person of sound body and mind with a better option would take it in a heartbeat.

It isn’t easy to write that I applied for food stamps, or that I have credit card debt. But since this week is an exploration of the challenges faced by poor folks, I figured I should face the embarrassment head-on. There is a lot of shame attached to being poor in a country dominated by a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. The reality is that many Americans don’t have bootstraps to pull in the first place, through no fault of their own. You can work hard and still need help, and there should be no shame in that.

On to what we ate yesterday!

Breakfast: Oatmeal with honey and cinnamon

Conspicuously absent: excitement

This breakfast was pretty boring. Even when I can doctor oatmeal up with nuts and coconut and cocoa powder I’m still underwhelmed, so it’s no surprise that I wasn’t particularly moved by this meal. Still, it filled us up.

Lunch: Chicken salad sandwiches

Conspicuously absent: nothing!

This lunch was so good. I made the chicken salad the night before with mustard, mayo, curry powder, salt, and pepper. I toasted the bread in melted butter on the griddle, and added tomato slices and red leaf lettuce after the bread and chicken were heated through. Carson finished his off and looked longingly at mine, so I let him eat the last quarter of it because sometimes that’s what you do for people you love. Plus, I was full – I piled the chicken salad high and still didn’t use it all (making a delicious two-bite snack later).

Dinner: Chicken soup

Conspicuously absent: bread

While I was making chicken salad on Monday night, I was also boiling the chicken carcass for stock and cooking a pot of brown rice. On Tuesday night I added diced tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, and kale to the chicken and rice base plus some more spices to make a really awesome soup.

Any time I roast a chicken I add water to the bottom of the pan so it creates extra drippings. If I don’t turn it into gravy I add it to soup, which is partly why this one had such deep flavors. We had so much soup that I was even able to feed our friend Brook who stopped by to say hello, with plenty left over for Wednesday’s lunch.

Hours after dinner, we both wanted a snack. I fantasized about the off-limits chocolate chips in the freezer. Instead, Carson poured tall glasses of ice water and fetched us each a honey stick. Honey never tasted so good.