At the turn of the 21st century, the construction business was booming. The Clinton economy saw an upturn in the housing and renovation markets unparalleled since the end of WWII. Unfortunately, that economy came at a cost. To achieve a balanced budget, Clinton made concessions to repeal portions of the Glass-Steagall Act that kept Wall Street off of Main Street, allowing banks to purchase security firms and gamble with depositor money.
That was the beginning of the inevitable housing bubble burst and a major contributor to the Great Recession. When the housing bubble burst, construction slowed to a near halt, and millions of people found themselves suddenly out of work and unable to pay their bills. I was one of those people.
At the time of the burst my family and I were doing well. Years of consistent work allowed us to live a decent life, spoil our two children a bit and start saving for a home of our own. That all changed virtually overnight.
As a subcontractor, I had nothing to fall back on. No unemployment insurance, and no prospects for work. Within three months, I had sold off all of my tools, and my wife had taken a minimum wage job so we could scrape by. Before long, our options had run out, and with our tails between our legs, we went to Family Services to apply for Food Stamps.
The first thing we noticed was the waiting room. It wasn’t full of drug dealers who drove up in Escalades wearing expensive jewelry and talking on iPhones, it was full of people from all walks of life who were in need of assistance. Almost everyone there had at least one child with them.
Our case worker was very kind. When I told her how I never thought I’d need to rely on anyone other than myself, she told me it wasn’t my fault, reminded me that I had paid taxes all my life, and said that my circumstances were the most common reason people applied for benefits.
We were allotted $426 a month for a family of four. This is the point where conservatives think people start living large off the government and their tax dollars, but the truth was so far from that its ridiculous.
We became the working poor. My wife was given 38 hours a week at her job, which meant she wasn’t eligible for benefits like insurance. For months, I found nothing, but not for a lack of trying. We ended up selling off the things we loved, borrowing from friends and family and searching the trash on the street for scrap metal on garbage day.
The only relief came on the 10th day of the month, when that $426 came and we could actually go shopping. The relief was short-lived, however, as what was a blessing became a lesson in stress management.
For the first two months we shopped with the kids, but after that we couldn’t handle the looks on their faces when we had to tell them they couldn’t have their favorite things. We resorted to shopping at Walmart, where the chicken tastes like whatever they inject it with and the ground beef came in what we affectionately referred to as “ecoli tubes.”
With somewhere near two and a half weeks worth of meals in the cart, not including lunches which would have to be leftovers, the till was dry. We learned to fill in some dinners with things like soup and sandwich night, and quite often we would ration meals to below-par calorie intake to be able to eat them again the next night.
I managed to find work here and there, which didn’t add to our food budget, it just meant we didn’t have to borrow as much or dig up enough scrap metal. When I did land a minimum wage cooking job, the $700 a month I made (until the restaurant went under, go figure) reduced our benefit to $136, meaning I worked 30 hours or so a week for a net gain of around 400 bucks, minus taxes and gas to get to and from work.
This was our reality, and for almost 2 years, the roller coaster never stopped. A job would come, the benefit would decline, the job would end, back to $426. Our children hid when the ice cream truck came down the street because they were embarrassed. We shopped in the middle of the night to avoid the dirty looks when we pulled out the EBT card.
Things have improved significantly, because like most people on public assistance the hell you endure will make you try new things, move if possible and necessary to find good work, better yourself and become innovative about your future. I umpired Little League Baseball for extra cash, learned to buy and sell on eBay and rode the wave of a slowly improving economy until we were able to pull our heads out of the sand.
We ended up moving to Maine where I eventually found a good-paying job and some stability. My wife was even able to stay home this year with our youngest daughter (who was born after the crisis ended) and enjoy some time with her before she starts kindergarten this fall.
In retrospect we were extremely lucky. We had a support system of friends and family and were able to squeak through the worst of times and come out the other side. Millions of Americans are finding their way through as well, but millions more are just starting their journey into the pits of Hades.
Before you judge, before you criticize, before you assume you know what people who use that EBT card are all about, consider this: It could happen to you. Before you decide that people on public assistance are living large on your dime, set aside $106.50 and feed yourself for a month on it.
The working poor live this nightmare, and unless something is done to change the rising tide of minimum wage jobs and wealth inequality, our story will become more and more common.
Featured Image: Charles Topher