by Carol Thompson
Bob and Mary are statistics of unemployment, victims of the recession, recipients of public assistance, and targets of snide and often hurtful comments.
It wasn’t always that way for the City of Oswego couple, who were once gainfully employed by the now-belly-up company that thrust them from middle class into the throes of poverty.
With so much recent publicity in regard to the abuse of public assistance, Bob and Mary wanted to tell their story and offered The Valley News the opportunity to spend a week with them at meal and grocery shopping times to witness first-hand how they cope with being recipients of food benefits.
Bob and Mary receive food stamps, in the form of a benefit card, that equates to $30 per week. With this money, they feed a family of three.
Shopping with the benefit card brings stares, glares and often rude comments that cause Mary’s eyes to swell with tears.
“We didn’t ask for this,” she said on a recent late night Wednesday grocery trip. “I can’t believe I’ve worked all my life, ask for a little help and get treated like a leper.”
Mary decided to tell her story following a July shopping incident. “My daughter is five and she was suffering from a fever that caused her to dehydrate,” she said. “When we got home from the hospital, I did as the doctor advised and got her Popsicles because she wasn’t holding anything down. When I was checking out, a woman behind me in line scolded me for buying treats with ‘her’ money.”
Mary made her purchases and left, with the woman continuing to say unkind words in the parking lot as she was loading her groceries. “I never said a word to her but I cried the entire way home,” she said.
Mary said the comments she hears aren’t fair. “We are working poor,” she said. “My husband and I have jobs. They aren’t good paying jobs like we had for many years but they are jobs and we are willing to do any type of work to stay off the welfare rolls.”
According to Oswego County Department of Social Services Director Gregg Heffner, Bob and Mary, whose surname isn’t being used to protect their privacy, are among one-third of the working poor receiving food assistance.
There are approximately 9,000 cases of food stamps in the county with approximately 3,000 of those open cases for those with jobs who cannot make ends meet. Among the two-thirds of unemployed residents receiving food benefits, many are elderly.
The application for food assistance sat on Bob and Mary’s table for months before they submitted it to DSS. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Bob said. “Admitting that I couldn’t feed my family cut like a knife.”
Food assistance was a last resort for the couple. They lived off their severance pay and unemployment benefits before raiding their life savings.
“It was costly to maintain our health insurance but we had to do it,” Mary said. “That took a good deal of our funds.”
When the unemployment benefits and savings ran dry, they sold everything they could, including their home. “We hadn’t owned our home long and in this economy, we were only able to sell it for slightly over what we paid,” she said. “We had a minimal amount to put in our pocket after our mortgage was paid but we were able to stretch our money for another year.”
Now renters, Bob and Mary are able to meet their monthly obligations with little public assistance.
“We don’t pay our bills late, we have nothing more than necessities but we couldn’t stretch our income enough to buy food,” she said. “Winters are hard because the heat bills are so high, even though the thermostat stays at 60 degrees. I don’t do laundry as often, we removed our cable service so we only get local channels and we removed our house phone. We sold one of our cars and kept one so we could get out job hunting.”
Mary is resourceful when shopping, not only because she is aware there is much disdain for welfare recipient’s, but because she has to provide 21 meals per week with $30.
“I have roughly $1.42 per meal to feed the three of us,” she said. “Bob and I prepare lunches to bring to work and now that our daughter is in school, we send her with a bag lunch. We probably could get her the free lunch program but we refuse to put our daughter through the same stigma that we face.”
Mary shops late at night to avoid the comments and stares. “It’s much less crowded at night,” she said. “I can usually find an empty line and have no one behind me.”
Mary plans out a weekly menu of dishes that can be stretched beyond one meal. She relies on friends to provide her with coupons so that she’s not spending money on newspapers and she prepares her menu based on sale items.
At the grocery store, food items are carefully selected and Mary sticks to her list. A large vat of goulash is on the menu because Mary can stretch it out for three dinners.
“We get tired of eating the same thing all the time but we have no choice,” she said. “We have to spend in a month what most people spend in a week. We are blessed to have friends who will drop off cereal for our daughter or fresh vegetables and fruit. There is no way we could provide without the help of our friends.”
Both college educated, Mary and Bob said they would be thrilled to secure the higher paying jobs they once held.
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