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working families

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Almost 10 years ago, Stephanie Land and her baby daughter Mia had no choice but to check into a homeless shelter.

Stephanie was fleeing an abusive relationship. She had no family to turn to, and she couldn't afford a place of her own. For the next three months, she and Mia lived in the Port Townsend homeless shelter in Washington.

Stephanie knew she needed help — and that's why one of the places she turned to was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP).

Applying for SNAP benefits can be an an ordeal under the best circumstances, but it was even more challenging for Stephanie because she lacked internet access. Thankfully, her persistence paid off and she soon began receiving benefits to help her pay for food.

Photo via iStock.

Her SNAP benefits were usually $200 to $300 a month — a mere $7 to $10 a day — and it was often all she had to pay for food.

But the SNAP benefits went a long way for her family. Mia was a picky eater, so Stephanie had to get creative to make sure she was getting as much nutritious food as she could afford. Sometimes that meant adding vegetables and a homemade sauce to packages of instant ramen to get Mia to eat them.

It was a process, but ultimately, SNAP, along with other welfare benefits like health care and child care, helped them stay afloat while Stephanie looked for work.

Photo via iStock.

Unfortunately, looking for work was easier said than done during the 2008 recession.

"All the jobs that were available during normal child care hours were more professional jobs," Stephanie recalls.

The only jobs she could get were entry-level, minimum-wage jobs that usually involved her working late hours, when affordable child care services are rarely available.

This balancing act of working low-paying jobs, caring for her daughter, and living on welfare wore on Stephanie. But she knew that college could be her ticket out of it.

The Land family in their studio apartment in low-income housing. Photo via Stephanie Land.

Stephanie applied for and received the Pell Grant and the Women's Independence Scholarship, which helps survivors of domestic violence pay tuition. She also took out student loans.  

While these helped significantly, she had to keep working because the federal benefits she needed to survive — like food stamps — would only continue if she was working at least 20 hours a week.

As a full-time student and single mom, working that much proved near impossible. But Stephanie kept pushing forward, relying on her resourcefulness and persistence to make it to each next day.

"I learned the only person I really had to depend on is myself," she says.

[rebelmouse-image 19345897 dam="1" original_size="400x400" caption="Stephanie Land. Image via Stephanie Land/Stepville." expand=1]Stephanie Land. Image via Stephanie Land/Stepville.

Stephanie didn't feel comfortable turning to friends for support during this time because she knew some of them believed that people who rely on federal benefits are lazy, entitled, and refuse to work hard.

It's a hurtful stigma and, unfortunately, one that many believe about people who have no choice but to rely on programs like SNAP.

"Being on food stamps and on Facebook at the same time, you learn what your friends really think of people on welfare," Stephanie explains. "You learn pretty quickly not to offer that information readily."

While Stephanie is proof positive that this stigma's message is false, she still felt embarrassed about needing federal assistance. In fact, it was that discomfort that made her all the more determined to change her situation.

After six years of hard work,she graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and started making a living wage writing.

Stephanie and Mia. Photo via Stephanie Land.

She wrote about various aspects of her day-to-day life, like working as a house cleaner and being a single mom living on $6 a day.

"I found a niche that not too many people can write about from a first-person perspective," Stephanie says.

She can  provide a window into a world that's often just speculated over rather than clearly seen. Many people push away the idea of poverty because they want to believe it could never happen to them. Through her insightful writing, though, Stephanie has proven no one is immune.  

"While it’s terrifying to come out and openly admit those things, it was also something people needed to read about," Stephanie says. "Especially from someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of what people connect with someone living in poverty."

When an article Stephanie wrote for Vox about cleaning houses went viral, she got a call from a well-known literary agent the same day asking to sign her. A year later, she was offered a book deal.  

Today, Stephanie lives in her first real house with her two daughters.

"It was quite a moment finally watching my girls play in a backyard," she recalls.

But, she says, she'll never forget those years she lived in poverty.  

Stephanie with her daughters Coraline (left) and Mia (right). Photo via Stephanie Land.

She's written about her experience for a number of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She's also a regular writer for the Center for Community Change, whose mission is to help improve low-income families' lives. And she's received a number of emails from people who were, or currently are, dealing with the issues she's faced, thanking her for giving them a voice.

As a result, she looks at the world through a different filter — one of compassion for everyone she comes across.

"I try not to make any assumptions about other people’s lives because it’s so easy to suddenly be in that place where you have nowhere to go," Stephanie explains. "And you never know who’s going through something like that."

If you or someone you know is living in poverty or with food insecurity, a good first step for them to take is to call 211 or check out 211.org online. There, you can find information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as many other federal assistance programs.