It was late, I was grumpy, and the woman in front of me was buying cigarettes. I noticed the items in her cart: brand-name snacks, colas, and frozen foods. I looked at how she dressed, considered the carton of cigarettes she requested, and made a wager to myself that she would pay with government assistance.
I was right.
After she peeled off money from a roll of cash to cover the smokes, she produced a state-issued food card. Our eyes locked as she handed it to the cashier, and in that moment I became convinced she knew that a stranger had taken her measure, judged her life, and found it wanting. I also knew that it wasn’t the first time.
I was ashamed. Who am I to judge how others live?
I’m the unworthy heir to a lifetime of luck and good timing, augmented by a strong work ethic that I never asked for, but that was granted me nonetheless. I grew up in a single-parent household where money was tight, but where my needs were met. I was fortunate to attend college. I’m lucky to have a teaching career that remains in demand and to have three employers whose checks make the mortgage and car payments.
If any one in a long line of dominoes had fallen a different way, I could have found myself in that woman’s position: having food choices criticized by strangers, enduring cold stares when buying cigarettes that maybe aren’t even for her.
I felt ashamed because I’d aligned myself, however briefly, with people who believe the poor must be punished. I was associating with those folks who say the government must drug-test welfare recipients and cut assistance payments to families whose children don’t make good grades.
Many Americans who never imagined they’d find themselves on food stamps, living in subsidized housing, or taking other forms of government assistance have swallowed their pride and accepted help. The Urban Institute notes that 51.4 percent of Americans will live in poverty before the age of 65.
Those who haven’t, or haven’t yet, are in the minority. People in this country who work full-time for the minimum wage bring home an income well below the $19,530 poverty threshold for a family of three.
Could they have made better career and financial choices? Possibly. But who among us hasn’t made an unwise decision and suffered later?
We have a cockeyed view of poverty in America. Those who are poor, we believe, must live like saints, dress in hand-me-downs, eat substandard food, and accept any position, no matter how hazardous or demeaning. They shouldn’t have decent housing, smart phones, cable TV, or brand-name clothing. They should live perfectly, with never a misstep or a bad habit.
But show me the person who doesn’t indulge the occasional vice. Show me parents who don’t want to give their children the best, even if it means stretching a budget beyond the breaking point.
If these are crimes, most of us are guilty.
Yet we expect people in poverty to push forward constantly, never pausing to enjoy even the simplest pleasures, and yearning for the day when they can escape into the middle class.
It’s not my place to judge if somebody on government assistance finds solace in the occasional cigarette or snack food. It’s not my place to monitor what they buy. It is my place to be grateful for what I have and what I’ve been able to do, and to help people who haven’t had similar good fortune.
The next time I’m in line, I’ll look down at my feet, up at the lights, or into my hands — anywhere besides at how someone pays for her order, which is none of my damn business.
By Chris Schillig
Chris Schillig is an English teacher in Alliance, Ohio. An earlier version of this op-ed ran in the Alliance Review.