Just a few months ago, my family stopped qualifying for government cheese.
It came as a little bit of a surprise to me—I had, after all, been a part of the WIC (women, infants, and children) program for almost seven years, starting with my first child. My daughter was born two months early due to life-threatening complications and I was never able to breastfeed. WIC supplied the formula, an expense that would have been a huge blow to our family’s finances. As my husband and I took turns getting our graduate degrees, WIC provided us with milk, cheese, eggs, and a few other essentials, and when we were support-raising missionaries living in immigrant and refugee neighborhoods for three years, we used our WIC vouchers along with all of our neighbors.
Two years ago when my second child was born, I wasn’t able to work, and while moving across the country, our only car broke down. By the time we finally found an apartment to live in and a job for my husband, we didn’t even have enough money to buy curtains for our windows. We applied for food stamps, or SNAP, along with WIC, and I don’t know what we would have done without it for those few months. I felt sweet relief being able to go to the grocery store, swipe my card, and purchase food for my family. Each time, I was incredibly grateful for my country.
In light of where my family is now, it’s important for me to take a moment and remember those feelings—both the stress of not having money to buy essentials and the gratitude for any small breaks. We now own a home, my husband is working full-time as a therapist, and I work as a part-time freelance writer. I suppose we are an American success story. We no longer qualify for WIC or SNAP. We pay more taxes (oh, those freelance taxes). If we buy them on sale, we can afford curtains for our new house. We are giving back. We don’t take any handouts. We feel independent, once again.
But the truth is, we’re not really independent—nor have we fully known what it’s like to be poor in America—because we’ve always been surrounded by safety nets. Our great-grandparents were immigrants from countries that were deemed European enough to allow entry, and their legal status was transferred onto us. I attended private universities and lived rent-free at home for periods of time in order to reduce my school debt. When we were support-raising, my husband and I benefited from stable communities and churches that were able to donate money to us, allowing us the luxury of time to work towards church-planting. And we received a large loan for our house, which up until recent history was only afforded to white people.
Most of these safety nets are not available to my neighbors, and the few nets they have access to are now under threat. According to the Washington Post, President Trump’s proposed budget makes “deep cuts across many anti-poverty programs, slashing food stamps by more than a quarter and children’s health insurance by 19 percent.”
Many, although certainly not all, immigrants, refugees, and people of color find it difficult to thrive in a country that clings tightly to ideas of fierce individualism and exceptionalism. Even more troubling, they are often personally blamed for the systemic inequalities that exist. As Dave Ramsey, a prominent evangelical money guru writes: “If you are broke or poor in the US or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is you. You can make better choices and have better results.”
After years of hanging out in WIC waiting rooms, living in low-income communities, playing with my kids at run-down parks, and reading the Bible with people in poverty, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that simple. Although debates about welfare are legitimately complicated, I have seen how poverty is intricately tied to systems of generational inequality, lack of available living-wage jobs, and also lack of affordable housing. (Only one in four Americans who qualify for housing assistance receive it).
I have also come to appreciate the incredible generosity of people in poverty. Whereas I used to believe that the wealthy and successful were the only paragons of Christian virtue, I now see the hospitality, resilience, and hope of neighbors who are living in a perpetual state of survival on the margins of America. I have eaten at least 100 meals that no doubt were subsidized by the government. I have had neighbors with very little extra cash sneak my children candy bars and dollar bills when I wasn’t looking. And I have been showered with gifts, both big and small, by people I was taught had somehow made the wrong choices.
My husband and I both come from Christian communities that espouse the need to protect the unborn and yet hesitate to provide services to the most vulnerable—including infants, children, and women they vilify as “welfare queens.” Some of my husband’s relatives, for example, worked for a few years at a grocery store chain and often complained about people who used food stamps to buy “inappropriate” food. After watching a woman use SNAP to buy dozens and dozens of hot dogs and buns, a cousin remarked, “Can you believe that? She was throwing a party for everyone and used her food stamps to do it.”
When I heard this story, I heard it as a beautiful metaphor—a woman feeding others with the precious gifts she had been given. And isn’t this the ultimate sign of stewardship shown to us in Scriptures, to pour out what little we have to others? As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in his book Money and Possessions, one of the main themes of the Pentateuch is a call for the people of God to be countercultural by transforming economies built on predation (like Egypt) into ones of “covenantal neighborliness.” As it says in Exodus, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Ex. 22:21–23 ESV). Neighbor-love, focused on the most vulnerable, is one of the most defining characteristics of a society of people who long to follow God.
There is still a need in the world for this kind of faithful community of resistance, although of course, how we go about doing this is a point of great debate. Dorothy Day, for example, was no fan of welfare and loved to talk about personal responsibility. (By that she meant it was the duty of the more privileged person to consider the needs of his neighbors in poverty.) Although there are many compassionate Christians like her who believe the church and the private sector more generally are better suited to alleviate poverty, I am of the mind that we need both church and state to step into the gap.
What if a holistic view of life involved investing in and supporting programs like WIC or free or reduced-price lunches for children? As these programs continue to be cut and more and more American children live in food insecure situations (one in five, according to No Kid Hungry), Christians are in a unique position to advocate for those most at risk in our society. Organizations like Catholic Charities, the Christian Community Development Association, and countless food banks and resettlement agencies are standing in in the gap. They understand that women, infants, and children who benefit from access to food are very close to the heart of God, and so they should be very close to our own—in a neighborly sense and a political one, too.
To me, the WIC symbol at the grocery store is a small beacon of hospitality in a world increasingly dominated by utilitarianism. When I go to the grocery store and see the blue WIC signs over the corresponding food—cereal, eggs, beans, corn tortillas—I remember the paltry amount we received for fruits and vegetables ($12 a month) and wonder how much people judged me for taking that handout. Now that I have been slightly in need, I have the opposite response: I wish we as a country did more. Now that I have a mortgage and pay heavily on my freelance earnings, I am happy to think that some of it goes towards my friends and neighbors. I am happy to know just a small part of my debt is being repaid to all of those precious people who took care of me, and so many others.
They, like the widow and the oil in the story of Elijah, continually pour out what they have, trusting that God will provide their needs in the morning.
D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne).