Discovering Your Family's Been on Food Stamps

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

A young reader describes how secretive and unreliable her father has been when it comes to finances:

I’m only 23 and have yet to experience any financial disasters, but I wanted to share the child’s point of view on what’s described in Neal Gabler’s article. He mentions being lucky enough to avoid sabotaging his relationship with his daughters despite his financial fragility. For my family, this has not been the case.

We fit Gabler’s description of financial peril pretty much to a T. My father raised me as a single parent from age 4 to 9; my stepmother provided a second income for a few years but then left her job to raise my two stepbrothers. My dad put himself through night school to become an architect when I was very young. We moved to Florida for his work just before its housing bubble burst and he was left scrambling for a job to pay for a new four-bedroom house that we perhaps didn’t need as a family of three.

Throughout my high school years we bounced from rental house to rental house as the owners we rented from kept being foreclosed on, incurring huge moving costs for my family. I didn’t find out until I applied for college financial aid that my family was on food stamps.

Extended family members told me my dad was struggling to keep the lights on—and indeed, our electricity was shut off once when I was in high school. Yet in my senior year we lived in a three-story townhouse with an elevator. When I got my financial aid package to an Ivy League, I got the largest package they offered because my father was now supporting a family of five on an income of less than $60,000.

I worked for a newspaper the summer before I started college and never saw the money I earned because it went to a bank account my father controlled and he “never got around to” transferring it to my personal checking account. Every semester was a scramble to cover my (relatively small, for Columbia) tuition bill in time for me to register for classes the following semester.

My father eventually resorted to lying to me about his ability to reimburse me when I covered parts of the tuition bills myself (I worked all the way through college) and convinced me to take out a student loan in my final year that he said he would pay back, only to never mention it again once I graduated.

Whatever bitterness is detectable in my tone here comes not so much from having to pay for these things but being repeatedly lied to about the reality of the situation. No matter how many times I asked my father to be straight with me about his finances, he kept promising to visit me in New York and to help me pay for life expenses only to never fulfill these promises.

After wearing down my trust for years, my father put the final nail in the coffin when I had a medical scare. I received a diabetes diagnosis just as I separated from a domestic partner whose insurance I was sharing, and I called my father crying because I couldn’t afford good enough insurance through New York’s market to deal with what was sure to be a slew of new expenses. He told me to get whichever plan I needed to ensure coverage and he would split the cost with me.

But after I bought the plan, he reduced his offer to $100 a month (for a $360/month plan). Not even that contribution ever materialized. Thankfully, the diagnosis was erroneous, but I kept paying for that insurance until I got a job with a better plan, which took nearly a year.

The result of all this is that I am extremely thrifty, religious about saving despite my high living costs in New York, and pretty much totally unwilling to go to graduate school or pursue a creative career path in the manner Gables describes, because I have seen what debt does and want to avoid it at all costs. Knowing the chronic difficulties of accumulating wealth in the African-American community has made me even more cagey about spending.

Thank you for the article. I’ll be sharing with my dad. (I’ve already shared with my social network and encouraged them to come to me for budgeting advice. ;)