Although spring officially began over a month ago, Easter and spring rites celebrate the resurgence of life whether it is the Christian symbol of resurrection, or Pagan traditions of rabbits and eggs; the common factor is renewal of life. For many Americans the significance of Easter is an assurance that death is impermanent if they follow a few hundred archaic rules and accept the resurrection story without question, and for students it is a regularly scheduled break from school before the rush toward the end of the year. However, for millions of Americans, the spring break has nothing to do with religion, the rites of spring, or a week of hedonism and debauchery in Caribbean climes, and instead, means their typical anxiety of providing for their children will be elevated, and their children will be hungrier than normal.
Over the past two years during interviews with low-income families struggling to make ends meet, a recurring theme was providing adequate food for their children. It is not uncommon for working poor parents to forego eating themselves so their children have at least one meal a day that often is reduced-price or free school lunches, and if they are lucky, a bit of breakfast courtesy of a program like Head Start for younger students. When middle class parents are struggling to find day care or extra-curricular activities to keep idle school children occupied, low-income parents are struggling to find meals for their children and this year presented an extra challenge because the holiday break begins at the end of the month and days until food stamps are issued.
On Saturday morning at the local food pantry, two families shared their stories and anxiety that they would have a tough time feeding their children over the next week, and were looking forward to one local church’s Easter egg hunt to augment their kids’ nutritional needs until their $189 worth of food stamps were ready. In both families, the parents worked two jobs at fast food restaurants and the nation’s largest retail discount chain, but because they only provided part-time work at minimum wages, they barely kept a roof over their children’s head or food on the table. Each family related that if they moved in with family or friends, they would lose their eligibility for the SNAP program, and were lucky they found tenement housing close to their places of employment they could reach on foot. Public transit was too expensive and drained valuable resources better used to feed their children.
The parents shared an all-too common story in America of a low-middle income existence that came to a screeching halt during the Great Recession, and the shame that came from not being able to provide a stable life for their families and little hope of a secure future. Republicans and conservatives regularly bemoan an entitlement culture borne of government programs to help struggling families, but these parents wanted the dignity of a living wage job and escape from the stigma of “takers” men like Paul Ryan characterize the 47.3 million Americans who qualify for the SNAP program are stuck with.
One of the parents could not understand how in the same week the news reported that S&P hit a record high, a program providing healthcare for their children was being drastically scaled back because the nation had to cut spending to reduce the deficit. He heard on Friday that President Obama was seeking funding for infrastructure improvements that would create jobs in his line of work (road construction), but lost all hope when John Boehner said the country was too broke to fix the roads. The interview became brutal when the man teared up and said he was a proud man who suffered overwhelming shame at accepting, and using, food stamps, when all he wanted was a decent job and a sense of dignity that comes with providing for his family and helping others who were much less fortunate than he was.
Doubtless there are millions of proud Americans in the same situation as the families that shared their stories, and it is almost certain there is little hope they will escape the poverty they have fallen into as a result of the recession they had no part in creating. On parting, both sets of parents refused to accept the offer of cash for themselves or their children, but they did ask about churches in the area that held Easter egg hunts with real eggs because most used plastic eggs filled with game tokens or candy they preferred their kids didn’t eat. But with three days till their food stamp allotments were ready, and no free or reduced school lunches for a week, they would “just make do with candy if that’s all there is.”
Today millions of Americans will dress up and head to their place of worship and rejoice at the resurrection story, and return home to shower their children with chocolate Easter bunnies and baskets filled with goodies. However, there are millions more who will seek out real Easter-colored eggs to feed their children, wait for their $189 worth of food stamps for the month, and wonder how they will replace the school lunch that in many, many instances is the only decent food their children regularly enjoy. The only good news is that with Congress on hiatus for a week, Republicans cannot cut safety nets any deeper in the short term meaning low-income children will have school lunches until summer when the parent’s anxiety of not being able to feed their children for a week lasts for two-and-a-half months. Happy Easter!