Published on
The Guardian/UK

Christmas on the Margins

The idea of chief executives being bailed-out while more than 30 million Americans are living on food stamps is unappetising

I was racing through the supermarket the other day trying to get my Christmas shopping out of the way. I would have been finished in record time had I not been held up at the checkout line because the bozo ahead of me decided to return something. I began to sigh loudly and roll my eyes until I realized that the bozo in question was a young mother obliged to return a pack of chocolate chip cookies she tried to purchase with her food stamps.

I tried not to catch her eye while the cashier recalculated her purchases without the cookies. (Her little boy didn't look too happy.) She was still $1.27 short on her food stamp card, but there didn't seem to be anything else she could spare. She dug into her purse and managed to put together the required sum with dimes and nickels. She smiled at me red-faced as her bags were packed. But I was the one who was more embarrassed.

I had been held up in a similar fashion a few days before in the same supermarket. On that occasion, the perpetrator had to return a bottle of orangeade. Her children were not too happy about it either.

I can't help thinking about what sort of Christmas these women and their families are going to have if a packet of chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of orangeade are beyond their reach.

I told a friend that I may end up on food stamps myself next year if I can't write my way out of my own financial quagmire. He was highly amused and said he hoped they had a second tier of food stamps for people who enjoy champagne and caviar.

It turns out you cannot buy champagne on food stamps, or any kind of alcohol for that matter. You can buy orangeade and chocolate chip cookies, though, and if you are really frugal and save up your food stamps for many weeks, you might even be able to afford caviar.

You can buy any kind of food as long as it's not prepared like restaurant food or heated. The snag is that with an average food stamp allowance of $24 per person per week, you can't really buy much of anything.

I hope I never end up on food stamps. If I were obliged to reduce my appetite to accommodate a budget of $24 a week, I would definitely be in need of something stronger than orangeade to take my mind off the situation.

Back in October 2000, just before he was elected president, George Bush described his base as "the haves and the have mores." The remark was made in jest at the annual Al Smith Black Tie dinner, but the joke turned out to be on all those people who used to have just about enough, and who now, eight years later, have next to nothing.

According to government data, as of September, 31.5 million Americans were using the food stamp program, up 17% from the previous year. That's 10% of the US population. These are staggering figures.

They bring to mind another staggering figure I recently came across that I have been unable to remove from my subconscious. It is $163,987,000 – the salary that Henry Paulson, now secretary of the US Treasury, took home in 2006 for his services as CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Two years later, Goldman Sachs required a massive bail-out from taxpayers. Many of these taxpayers may soon be applying for food stamps.

When Paulson sits down to his sumptuous Christmas feast, paid for with some of the spoils from that nine-figure salary, I hope he will he spare a thought for the 10% of Americans who have barely enough to eat.

I'm sure that if he ever witnessed first hand the humiliation of a person unable to pay for their food at a supermarket checkout, he would feel compelled to redistribute his millions among the 31.5 million food stamp recipients.

Maybe then they could afford a decent Christmas dinner next year.

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Sadhbh Walshe

Sadhbh Walshe is a film-maker and former staff writer for the CBS drama series The District. Her opinion pieces have also been published in the Chicago Tribune and Irish Times.

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