One of my jobs is as a store clerk at a convenience store, so I also see the other side of it. I see people come in to use their EBT cards. EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Card, it works like a credit card and it is where a welfare recipients benefits are held. Some people receive TANF, which stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. With TANF one can purchase anything that one would be able to purchase with cash, with food stamps, as the name suggests, one can only buy food. The food one can purchase with food stamps is limited to foods that aren’t cooked, so no deli sandwiches, no soups, not even coffee that is already made and provided piping hot by the store. When I say I have seen the other side of this I mean that I have seen people come in and buy beer or other alcoholic beverages with it as well as cigarettes, and that is a little disarming to me. Once while working at my store I saw a young woman in her early twenties spend thirty dollars of TANF money on electronic hookahs, the newest fad in nicotine free cigarettes. The look that the woman behind her in line gave me was much the same as the look I have gotten when I buy food with my food stamps at the grocery store, likely, to the evil eye woman in line, I would be in the same box as the twenty something girl who bought the hookahs.
I have to say, I didn’t think it was appropriate for this young girl to buy hookahs with her TANF. I received TANF for a short while when I first moved to the area in which I live right now. As suggested by the word “temporary” in the acronym, I used that resource as a catalyst, not as a crutch. I was on it for just over two months before I was making enough money to be on food stamps alone. When I was on TANF I used the cash side of my EBT card to purchase household items such as toilette paper and cleaning products. I also used it to keep my bicycle in working order as it provides all my transportation needs. Finally, I used it for bills or to help with rent. I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying tobacco or alcohol with it, in point of fact, I never used it to buy anything I considered a “want” only things I considered a “need.” The whole thing makes me think that perhaps I have been stuffed into the wrong box, and I don’t like it.
I am grateful that there is a system in place where assistance is available to people who need help but I am conflicted. While I understand the attitude of prejudice against some people using the system, I disagree with assuming that everyone who uses it is exactly the same. Sure, I met a pregnant woman who said she was having this, her fourth child, because she would be able to get more money from the government. I also met a woman who claimed she was taking care of her two children so she would get more food stamps and a cash supplement to assist with child care despite the fact that her ex-husband had been the sole caregiver to those children for three years and was still the one taking care of them. I have met people who actually take some sort of sick pride out of taking advantage of the system, of cheating it, and of getting away with receiving maximum benefits when the truth was that they really didn’t need half of what they were getting. I have also seen people collect unemployment for claiming injuries they didn’t really have. Getting prescription drugs they didn’t need and then selling them for cash. I have seen all of this and more and I wonder how the hell I end up, time and again, in the same box as these people when I am nothing like them.
To an extent, all box-stuffers are acting from a place of ignorance. It isn’t just the boxes and labels handed down to us from family and friends, there are other boxes too. What of the boxes we don’t make ourselves? Again, I can only speak to my own experience so to that end, I wonder about those boxes as well. I was in a box that wasn’t self-imposed from a very young age. I was in the orphan box, what are the thoughts that come into your head immediately when you hear the word orphan? Do you have an orphan box? Most do. I became a "foster kid" or “ward of the state” soon after that and I climbed and got pushed back down only to climb again, and I retched and I heaved and struggled and I climbed out of that box no matter how many times I was beaten down only to find that once out of that box, I landed in another one. I came to realize rather quickly that I was like one of those Russian Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. For each box I thought I was getting free of there was another one to take its place. I know this isn’t unique to me, I know that others out there feel the same way and it is a sad state of affairs we are all in, we box up ourselves and others and maintain a permanent state of disconnection from anyone whose boxes are different than ours.
We all do it, consciously or unconsciously we box people up and consciously or unconsciously we box ourselves up, at least some do. Perhaps it’s to feel safe, being in the same box with a bunch of like-minded people who always agree with your point of view is far easier than breaking out of your box and trying something new, opening your mind to a new experience and possibly finding out that all this time, you were wrong. Taking a risk can prove to be a negative or a positive experience but most prefer the safety of never finding out, easier to stay put and stay the course than risk your beliefs, beliefs that you have held dear and fed and maintained for so long. I think Tom Robbins said it best, and with his words I close this little jeremiad … “You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one's life. So you lose it, you go to your hero's heaven and everything is milk and honey 'til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That's not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés.”
- Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction