Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Home Economics

Weekend grocery shopping? Lines are inevitable. Parents of toddlers have been in that hard spot of being almost finished with the grocery list just when meltdown occurs. Families living paycheck to paycheck have been in that hard spot of watching the total tally carefully and holding certain items at the end of the checkout belt... and handing them over to be reshelved in order to stay on track with the budget. But since most readers of this blog are suburban two income families, I want to ask you a question: when was the last time you waited patiently in line behind someone paying with SNAP (food stamps) or WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutritional program) benefit checks or debit cards?

That person is me.


In the past five years, our family has bordered on the gross income threshold for WIC assistance. Specifically, we've been about $200 annually from qualifying more than one year in a row. The first question that usually pops into others' heads is: couldn't Jenny get a teaching job?

Yes, I could but the numbers are hard to break even with when kids aren't in full day kindergarten. The year Abigail was born, my hourly net pay was $13/h given all the hours actually spent on work; if a daycare or babysitter were paid even a low $5/h, about half of my net income would have gone to childcare for just one child.

Moving to Saint Louis two years ago, I was offered a part-time teaching job. I had to decline after I talked to HR and did the math on my net salary minus childcare for two kids. I took the risk of growing a tutoring clientele for equal pay and much better weekly hours. With three kids ages 5 months to 5 years, we ended up valuing the time and sanity we recoup with me "working" as a full time mom and tutoring or providing childcare to other families.

Future seasons of life will likely change our choices and outcomes. I do pray for a job once the youngest child heads off to kindergarten (or just the right mix of job and time with my kids before that!). The past five years have only been one season.

Health Clinics

We've used the state and county health clinics every year for the past five years. The year that our oldest was less than 12 months old, we were still on my public school teaching health insurance (pre-ACA). At two months of age, she had reached her maximum allowed benefit... well-child exams were partially covered but vaccinations were not. I remember well a $100 bill for one dose at that two month visit. From then on, I took her and Evan to the county health clinics for vaccinations, which had only a $10-15 subsidized cost per shot. We've bounced around on four different health insurance plans in the past five years, and the clinics were especially helpful as our benefits changed.


In the past twelve months, I applied for financial assistance at the YMCA. And for preschool tuition assistance. And for public school summer preschool. And the public school PTO covered our daughter's required school supplies. And for WIC food assistance for me, Ariel, and Evan.

When I mention this, I usually do so cautiously. Stereotypes abound about the kinds of people that "live off of" state and federal assistance.

Today, I'm writing about it so you can be more compassionate.

This is also an opportunity for you to see into the world of state-run clinics and assistance programs. It may be tempting to dismiss my experience because I'm light skinned with dark blond hair and green eyes; but while I wait, there's not much to do except people-watch. The staff are equally courteous and helpful to all people there for care. Additionally, I've seen clients help each other out, like when my name was called while I helped my son in the bathroom or a child needed to be entertained while mom called for a doctor's office to fax records over. Although friends have encountered system tangles when trying to apply for or cancel certain benefits, I would consider my county health clinic, my experience at free flu shot clinics, and my experience at the WIC office no different than if I were at a private practice doctor's office: everyone has been professional.

What is hard is the stigma. It was hardest to walk into the health clinic the first time. It was hard to submit our bank statements for WIC, sit across the counter while numbers were entered, and then answer that I do indeed have a bachelor's degree. It was hard to write out a letter asking for assistance to the YMCA and schools... mostly because of what other people say, without knowing that our family has been helped.

So, if you notice someone paying with SNAP or WIC benefits in line ahead of you and the transactions are taking longer than you anticipated, please be patient.

Stay in line and pray silently for the individual or family ahead of you.

Watch your words when discussing assistance programs in our country.

Be open to a stretched heart and stretched generosity towards others.

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