Washington Post Despairs Parents of Toddlers Forced to Choose Between Food and....Tattoos

A lengthy – 3,500 word – anguished expose on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, Hungering for a new month to begin,” about how people in Woonsocket, Rhode Island race to the grocery stores on the first of the month to spend their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payment, yet run out of food long before the month ends, didn’t offer a word about President Obama’s responsibility for the poor economy.

Deep in it, however, reporter Eli Saslow undermined his case when he sympathetically cited “a series of exhausting, fractional decisions” a couple with two toddlers face over having to choose between food “or the $75 they owed the tattoo parlor.”

Saslow failed to explain why the couple, supposedly forced to consider a trip across town to pay 70 cents less for a gallon of milk, decided to get a tattoo (or pay for cell phones) when they can’t afford to feed their kids from the presumably inadequate $518 a month SNAP giveaway:

For the past three years, the Ortizes’ lives had unfolded in a series of exhausting, fractional decisions. Was it better to eat the string cheese now or to save it? To buy milk for $3.80 nearby or for $3.10 across town? Was it better to pay down the $600 they owed the landlord, or the $110 they owed for their cellphones, or the $75 they owed the tattoo parlor, or the $840 they owed the electric company?

“Every four weeks, a Rhode Island town’s economy booms as residents use food stamp money to stock up. But full shelves inevitably give way to days of want,” read the subhead for the plaintive March 17 article.

Saslow summarized the sad state of the economy without considering whether or not Obama administration policies might have exacerbated the situation, or whether Obama policies have encouraged the dependence on government in the state which voted overwhelmingly for Obama:

...Three years into an economic recovery, this is the lasting scar of collapse: a federal program that began as a last resort for a few million hungry people has grown into an economic lifeline for entire towns. Spending on SNAP has doubled in the past four years and tripled in the past decade, surpassing $78 billion last year. A record 47 million Americans receive the benefit — including 13,752 in Woonsocket, one-third of the town’s population, where the first of each month now reveals twin shortcomings of the U.S. economy:

So many people are forced to rely on government support.

The government is forced to support so many people.

Saslow’s look at the plight of the Ortiz family:

....The last meal of the month was almost always their worst.

Rebecka and Jourie Ortiz usually ran out of milk first, after about three weeks. Next went juice, fresh produce, cereal, meat and eggs. By the 27th or 28th, Rebecka, 21, was often making a dish she referred to in front of the kids as “rice-a-roni,” even though she and Jourie called it “rice-a-whatever.” It was boiled noodles with canned vegetables and beans. “Enough salt and hot sauce can make anything good,” she said.

Late on Feb. 28, Rebecka came home to their two-bedroom apartment to make a snack for her daughters, ages 1 and 3. The kitchen was the biggest room in their apartment, with a stove that doubled as a heater and a floral wall hanging bought at the dollar store that read: “All things are possible if you believe!” She opened the refrigerator. Its top shelf had been duct-taped and its cracked bottom shelf had been covered with a towel. Only a few jars of jelly, iced tea, rotten vegetables and some string cheese remained in between.

For the past three years, the Ortizes’ lives had unfolded in a series of exhausting, fractional decisions. Was it better to eat the string cheese now or to save it? To buy milk for $3.80 nearby or for $3.10 across town? Was it better to pay down the $600 they owed the landlord, or the $110 they owed for their cellphones, or the $75 they owed the tattoo parlor, or the $840 they owed the electric company?

They had been living together since Rebecka became pregnant during their senior year of high school, long enough to experience Woonsocket’s version of recession and recovery. Jourie had lost his job at a pharmacy late in 2010 because of downsizing, and Rebecka had lost hers in fast food for the same reason a few months later. They had filled out a one-page application for SNAP and been accepted on Oct. 11, 2011, awarded $518 for a family of four, to be delivered on the first of every month. “Check Day!” they had begun calling it. They had applied for jobs until finally, late in 2012, they had both been hired for the only work high school graduates were finding in a low-wage recovery: part time at a nearby supermarket, the nicest one in the area, a two-story Stop & Shop across the Massachusetts line.

She made $8 an hour, and he earned $9. She worked days in produce, and he worked nights as a stocker. Their combined monthly income of $1,700 was still near the poverty line, and they still qualified for SNAP.

Rebecka had read once that nobody starved to death in America, and she believed that was true. But she had also read that the average monthly SNAP benefit lasted a family 17 days, and she knew from personal experience the anxiety headaches that came at the end of every month, when their SNAP money had run out, their bank account was empty and she was left to ply Woonsocket’s circuit of emergency church food pantries. Saint Agatha’s on Mondays. All Saints’s on Tuesdays. Saint Charles’s on Thursdays, where the pantry opened at 10 a.m. but the line of regulars began forming at 6....

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center