Writers note: I first met Amy Jo in early 2017. She was telling her story of poverty and her experience with stigma to a group of well-to-do community women in Wheeling. She ended her talk with a call to action. “Have real conversations with people” she said – “talk about the hard stuff.” It was a powerful ask and one that she lives out every day. I owe a lot to Amy Jo and am honored to help share her story and perspective here. This is Amy Jo.
How have Safety Net Programs impacted your life?
There were a few times that my family relied on food stamps growing up. I can remember being embarrassed and fighting with my mom when I would have to take the stamps to the store, standing there and ripping them out of the book. As an adult, I have been the only parent of 2 for 11 of 14 years. SNAP helped me to feed my kids. I was unemployed for a few months after having to quit my job due to an injury, and SNAP was a lifesaver. I was insured by Medicaid even while teaching for Head Start because of low income. I have relied on both, CHIP and Medicaid, to cover my girls.
Have you felt shamed or embarrassed using these programs?
Yes, all the time. I know the things said about food stamp recipients firsthand. There’s never been a moment that I haven’t felt ashamed to swipe my EBT card. There are so many lies and exaggerated truths about SNAP. I have been told that my car is pretty new for me to be on food stamps. I’ve been told that no one else should have to pay to feed my kids. I love it when I’m told that I should have stopped having kids that I couldn’t afford. My kids refused to use the card because they were embarrassed. It’s like this ugly truth that people assume I’m/we are solidly middle class and then when they would see that SNAP card come out, things would change.
What stereotype(s) about people in poverty do you believe are most dangerous to helping understand the experience of people in poverty?
That we’re lazy. And that the system is broken. The system isn’t broken and works exactly as it’s set up to work.
What would your daily life look like without access to programs like SNAP and Medicaid?
My kids wouldn’t have health insurance. I am making more money now than I ever had and still have to rob Peter to pay Paul. I’m solidly working class poor because I’m supporting my household on one income. I can’t afford insurance for myself so I’ve been without since April. I won’t accept that fate for my chicks.
As a single mother, how do you believe state/federal governments could better serve single parents in poverty?
Stop making decisions about us without us.
What makes you optimistic about your future?
I’m fortunate enough to meet some amazing people across the state who, despite constant attacks on the safety net, are resilient and ready to push back. I’m blessed to be a in a position that allows me to pass along some of the things that I have received through my work, such as skill building and training, to assist poor people in learning how to organize and turn their pain into power. I know the people who have dirt under their fingernails from climbing up from the bottom and I have the privilege of throwing them a rope. Rock bottom is the foundation on which I’m building a movement.