Living one month at a time
In Congress, politicians are debating cuts to food stamps – and the character of those who rely on the benefits. In Ellettsville, a single mother faces the reality of trying to feed her four children through one month’s cycle.
By Matthew Glowicki
When the letter from the government arrived, Cassie Winders panicked.
Her middle son, 8-year-old Ashton, brought in the mail that day in late October. She read the notice on the worn pink mattress in her makeshift bedroom in the basement.
“Are you kidding me?” she thought.
Winders’ benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly known as food stamps – were about to be cut. Until then, the government had given her almost $500 a month to feed herself and her four children. Come November, the notice told her, she would receive about $50 less each month.
Across the county, millions of other Americans receiving food stamps opened similar letters. The November reductions signified the end of 2009 stimulus money that had padded benefits for all recipients. Winders, 33 and out of work, would have $15 a day in food stamps with the reduction – $3 a piece for herself and each of her children. Her food stamp debit card would be reloaded with the new amount on Nov. 10.
“Any kind of decrease, with anything, is a big deal right now,” Winders said.
Her family was already on the edge. Even before the decrease, the funds would never last the month. On how much less could she still make ends meet?
Late at night, when the house was quiet, Winders would lie on the bare mattress and wonder how she could keep the family afloat. She would stare at the wire mobile hanging near the end of her bed. The faces of her children would look back.
“What can I do differently?” she asked herself. “Will I lose the house? Can I pay the water bill? Is there enough food to last the week?”
She had no clue.
* * *
Winders doesn’t get the newspaper – too expensive – and doesn’t have cable. Disconnected from the news, she had no idea Congress was talking about her and her children.
In Washington, D.C., politicians continue to debate the future of the food stamp program and the work ethic of the 47 million Americans that receive its benefits.
Congress has struggled to compromise on details of a new five-year Farm Bill, which includes funding for food stamps. The outcome of legislators’ haggling will determine just how much the program shrinks.
U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has argued food stamps ensnare the poor.
“I think it’s insensitive to not have a work requirement for food stamps,” he told NBC News. “Our goal in these programs is not to make poverty easier to handle and tolerate and live with. Our goal in these programs ought to be to give people a temporary hand so that they can get out of poverty.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a proponent of slashing the SNAP program, argued food stamp applicants should meet increased work requirements. He said people can no longer sit on their couch “and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”
Though Winders has not followed the Congressional debates, she does read the posts on Facebook about people on welfare.
“It frustrates me,” she said, “because I feel like poor people get a bad rap.”
Winders wonders if the leaders in Washington really understand the complexity of her situation.
“It’s easy to sit where they sit and judge others,” she said. But she hopes that some of the politicians can relate. “I’d like to think there are some people in the White House and Congress that grew up in a single-mother household or with low income.”
For Winders, living on little isn’t new. She grew up poor in Oklahoma. Sometimes, no water flowed from the tap. Other times, her family sat in darkness without power. She still cringes at the memory of eating cold hot dogs from the refrigerator. She finished her GED, and got pregnant at 17.
“I resented my family,” she said. “I resented my upbringing. I was embarrassed to have my friends over.”
She never wanted her children to feel that way. A series of moves and three different fathers of her children later, she landed in Ellettsville where she began working as a patient care technician at Bloomington Hospital.
When she was let go in September 2012 for tardiness and missing too much work due to illness, she said, it shook her.
“Our whole lives just changed.”
Winders took a job at Taco Bell. When the employees from the hospital pulled up to her drive thru window, her stomach would twist in shame.
She left Taco Bell and began work in home health care as a caregiver, looking after the elderly. She took up classes in the spring at Ivy Tech Community College to work toward becoming an EMT. But often she wasn’t home for homework or dinner. She slept when her children were at school and worked in the evenings.
Many nights she left Eli, 2, and Ashton, 8, in the hands of her two older children, Patrick, 15, and Alivia, 13.
When she or the older children couldn’t watch Eli, she hired a babysitter to look after him.
Something needed to change. She’d worked consistently for 15 years but never seemed to save enough to escape the cycle. For all the running she did, where had it gotten her? In October, she quit work at the home health care agency and stopped attending classes. She needed to hit pause.
“I’m the first person to tell someone to get off their ass and get a job,” she said. “I get that.”
In hindsight, she realizes that she shouldn’t have quit school and her job at the same time. She regretted the way she left the home health care job. And she knew she needed to get back to work.
“I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong,” she said. “I honestly don’t feel like I would have been able to keep going the way I was.”
The time off came with a price. In November, just as her food stamps were being reduced, creditors were calling, and the utility bills were piling up, and she was falling behind in her $530 monthly mortgage payment.
“I feel like a failure,” she said.
* * *
Winders pushed the metal cart down the dollar aisle at the IGA grocery store, Alivia and Patrick following. It was fairly early in the cycle, Nov. 18. There was room for choice.
Bright orange stickers announced a 68-cent-special on heads of lettuce. She picked up a few, rotating them in her hand before she settled on one.
Alivia, her pickiest eater, wanted no part.
“There’s nothing wrong with them,” her mother told her.
In the meat section, Winders scanned the offerings for expiring meats. But nothing caught her eye. Beef cubes, donated from a food pantry, were already simmering at home.
She passed the freezers where a two-layer fudge cake stopped her. Heaven, she thought when eying its smooth chocolate icing. But $15.99? She moved on, stopping at the stand of expiring breads.
“I don’t care if it’s buns, rolls, white, wheat,” Winders said. “If it’s on sale, we’re getting it.”
In the checkout line, she ripped open a package of chocolate muffins. Patrick was hungry after his wrestling practice. They left with four bags – $18.17 in food stamps.
Driving home, Winders lit up a Newport – a habit she knew she should quit.
“You know those things are killing you slowly,” Alivia said from the passenger seat.
“I wish they’d kill me fast.”
* * *
Annual costs of the food stamp program have soared from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012, making it a target of federal belt-tightening.
Proposed cuts in SNAP spending range from $4 billion in the Senate version to $39 billion in the Republican-controlled House.
If the future cuts are made, they will affect the 47 million Americans enrolled in SNAP, a number that has risen nationally 70 percent since 2008.
In Indiana, nearly one-sixth of the population receives food stamp benefits. In Monroe County, 8 percent of residents use the program.
Winders’ situation echoes across the country. Non-elderly adult women make up 62 percent of all food stamp recipients. Many are single mothers.
* * *
It was 6:58 p.m., and dinner was still a while away.
Ashton took a break from the television – an old purchase at a discount electronics store – to see what mom had brought home. She had been gone for longer than expected.
“I’m hungry,” he said, crashing back in his chair in front of the screen.
With no cable to watch, the family relies on Winders’ mother to pay for Netflix. Their only game controller broke a few months ago. In place of playing his favorite game, “Minecraft,” Ashton watches tutorials for it on YouTube.
“Is your homework done?” Winders yelled from the kitchen.
Ashton grunted. Eli had managed to scale the kitchen stool and teetered perilously on its top. His diaper strained, full. He watched as his mom moved about the kitchen checking the burners and the oven.
Winders lit another Newport and grabbed the toddler, feeling the diaper’s heaviness. Mouth clenched around the cigarette, she made quick work of the smelly mess. The pantless toddler soon was back on his feet in a fresh diaper, shepherded by Cassie’s boyfriend Kris Korthouse to a small bowl of cheesy noodles, beef and ketchup on the floor.
“Hot,” Korthouse warned. “Blow on it.”
Ashton and Alivia sat at a patio table, brought in from the balcony after their kitchen table broke last month. Their mom sloshed boxed au gratin potatoes onto Patrick’s plate.
For a few minutes, the family was quiet, lost in their meal.
* * *
There’s no single storyline for those who rely on food stamps. Many recipients are the very young and the very old. Some are two working parent households. Recipients can live for years on the program or rely on it temporarily in times of great need.
Feeding America, a national hunger-relief non-profit organization, estimates that 17.5 percent of Monroe County residents are “food insecure,” meaning they lack consistent access to sufficient amounts of healthy foods.
Need only seems to be rising in Monroe County. Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a food pantry, distributed 210 percent more bags of food in 2012 than in 2004. And the Community Kitchen of Monroe County is serving 25 percent more meals than it did in 2009, Executive Director Vicki Pierce said.
The need has grown tremendously, she said, particularly among children and the elderly.
“Those SNAP benefits really make it possible for children and the parents to eat healthy, nutritious food and stay on track developmentally,” Pierce said.
In a tighter financial climate, Pierce has seen more people rely on the Community Kitchen when planning their meals.
“Yeah, the economy might be slightly rebounding,” Pierce said. “But if locally the landscape isn’t changing and the minimum wage isn’t rising and if programs like food stamps and federal housing aren’t enough, we’re going to see need rise.”
* * *
The family’s food stamps were spent by Nov. 24.
A few days later, Winders couldn’t believe that she had used her two eldest children’s birthday money – $40 – to pay for gas and hamburger.
“I’ve never, ever, ever, ever taken money from my kids,” she said. “I felt like a loser.”
On Dec. 2, with one week left in the cycle, the family ran out of toilet paper. Instead, they used coffee filters.
“This month is where it’s hitting me hard,” Winders said. “I’ve exhausted everything I have.”
Two days later, still with no gas money, she asked a friend to drive her to Walmart to pick up a $100 Money Gram her sister had sent. Toilet paper, gas, food, laundry soap and cigarettes were atop the shopping list. She treated herself to a soda.
“And I know I don’t deserve a Polar Pop,” she said. “But it was like heaven.”
She had swallowed her pride and also called her mom, who sent enough to pay the water bill.
Winders had not made a mortgage payment since Oct. 1. She figured she was probably in foreclosure. At any moment, she expected the phone company to turn off her landline and Internet. That bill was long past due.
She had not felt this desperate in a long time.
Knowing she needed to get back to work, she applied to three home health care ads and a restaurant in Ellettsville.
There likely won’t be gifts from mom under the Christmas tree.
* * *
Monday was the last day of the cycle. Winders’ home phone and Internet had finally been shut off. A letter delivered that day was titled, “Final notice before foreclosure review.” There had been no food stamps for 15 days.
The evening meal at the Community Kitchen – fresh diced fruit, mixed salad, corn and ham and potatoes – filled Winders, her boyfriend and Eli. Six take-out containers of food awaited Patrick, Alivia and Ashton.
Shortly after midnight, the food stamp benefits renewed, and the card worked again. Winders celebrated, like she does every month.
“My ritual,” she called it.
She woke Alivia with a light shake. The two of them used a kitchen broom to wipe the freshly fallen snow from their van – the family did not own an ice scraper – and drove the two of them to the BigFoot convenience store down the street.
They splurged on a big box of Krispy Kreme donuts, potato chips, a Watchmacallit candy bar for Alivia, Arizona Sweet Tea for Patrick and Cool Ranch Doritos for Ashton.
Winders and her daughter opened the snacks and start eating them on the drive home.
And with that, the cycle began again.