As a child, I often walked the short distance from my family’s tenement house in Woonsocket, R.I., to the neighborhood store to buy milk and bread. I paid with food stamps, which my family needed until we didn’t just a few short years later. With four growing boys in the family, we always were running out of milk and bread.
Today, I’m the president of a national financing and leasing firm. I worked hard to go from a working poor upbringing to where I am today, but I didn’t do it alone. I’ve been fortunate to have some people guide and lift me up through the years.
And when we needed them, my family also had food stamps.
I’ve reflected on all of this in light of recent rule changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal food assistance program that helps lift millions of Americans out of poverty. Come April, more than 688,000 struggling Americans will be at risk of losing their SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, if they can’t meet an onerous work requirement.
The changes affect able-bodied adults under 50 who don’t have children or other dependents. That’s 7 percent of SNAP recipients nationwide; children, the elderly and people with disabilities, who are the vast majority of SNAP participants, aren’t affected. As of April 1, many of those affected will be limited to three months of food aid during a three-year period unless they’re working, in job training or volunteering for 80 hours a month.
I don’t understand this change and not just because we’re approaching the holidays, a time when people typically are more tenderhearted toward their neighbors in need. Hunger is a year-round problem for millions of families. Reducing food assistance doesn’t help address hunger.
To be clear, I believe in the dignity of work. My father, a grocery store clerk, instilled in me a belief that anything could be accomplished through hard work. But I’ve also seen enough to know that many people experiencing poverty and food insecurity have barriers to work that are difficult to understand unless you’ve been there.
Challenges such as lack of transportation, insufficient education and undiagnosed health conditions aren’t just difficult hurdles to clear. In many cases, they’re insurmountable.
I know because I’ve been there. Growing up, we bounced from tenement to tenement. I was in second grade when I’d run to the store for my family, peeling off food stamps from the booklets they had back in those days. I learned what you could use them for and what you couldn’t. For example, I paid in cash, not food stamps, for my dad’s Winston cigarettes.
Mostly, we used the food stamps to buy the type of food that could sustain us for cheap — pasta and cereal and the like. It must have been a hard time for my parents, but they sheltered my brothers and me from that reality. I had no idea that we were that poor.
Eventually, my family’s situation improved, at least enough to not need food stamps. My parents qualified for a loan to buy an $18,000 house that my mother still lives in today. Working two newspaper delivery routes, I saved enough money to go study French in Paris for a year. That life-changing experience opened my eyes to what was possible.
When I returned home, my former Little League baseball coach connected me to a bank teller job that paid minimum wage. I worked in the day and went to college at night. Eventually, my superiors at the bank recommended managerial training for me. The rest, as they say, is history.
I worked extremely hard to make it out of poverty, but I was also fortunate to have helpers — mentors, teachers, coaches and friends who gave me a boost. Some of my friends and family weren’t so lucky.