As a native of Appalachia, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the plight of blue-collar Americans. Mine is a region shaped by the struggle for fair pay and safe working conditions. To this day, “coal country” for many is synonymous with hard living and generational poverty.
So when I heard about Oliver Anthony’s viral hit, “Rich Men North of Richmond” (a reference to powerful elites in Washington, DC), I was excited for a song in the tradition of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie—music that names the inherent dignity of the poor, lodges a protest against establishment excess, and echoes Old Testament calls for justice, like God’s condemnation in Jeremiah 5:28 of those who “have grown fat and sleek” yet “do not promote the case of the fatherless” or “defend the just cause of the poor.”
Then I heard these lyrics:
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare
Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Immediately, I was transported back in time.
I’m a 30-year-old mother of three again, standing in the checkout line of our local grocery store. Rhonda, the organist from the church my husband pastors, has cued up directly behind me. She says hello, and I nod back.
Normally, I would ask about her grandbabies or garden, but instead, I mumble an excuse about having forgotten bread and navigate my cart out of line toward the aisles stocked with food. But I haven’t forgotten anything. It’s a charade, a charade brought about by the shame I feel because my family is on welfare, and Rhonda is about to see me pay with food stamps.
Food stamps are the colloquial name for the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that serves nearly 42 million Americans (13 percent of the population) at risk of food insecurity. It grew out of a Depression-era initiative that bought excess farm commodities and redistributed them among the hungry.
Over the decades, the program morphed to become a major line of defense against food insecurity in this country. Today participants use an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to purchase groceries, in much the same way one might use a debit card.
Despite the number of people accessing SNAP, their experiences are not widely known among the general public—or, at least, the experience isn’t often openly discussed. That’s partly due to the negative stereotypes that accompany food insecurity and social programs more generally, like Anthony’s disdainful words about those who use welfare in a song that otherwise champions the downtrodden.
These narratives are so powerful that they caused me to hide my own participation, a choice made all the easier because I didn’t fit the common cultural assumptions about SNAP participants.
My husband and I were both college-educated. He was employed full-time while I cared for our children, who were all under five. When I could, I volunteered in the church as a Sunday School teacher, pianist, and counselor. On the surface, we were the epitome of conservative values—exactly the kind of people who don’t use government subsidies.
But after our youngest son was born, making us a family of five, we simply couldn’t stretch my husband’s $28,000 pastoral salary any further. We appealed to the church board for just enough to cover the gap but were given half of what we needed and told that social services were available to cover the rest. When we asked the board to reconsider, the head deacon’s response was blunt: “You don’t just ask for a raise and get what you want. There are always negotiations.”
With no other choice, we easily qualified for SNAP, our monthly income being well under the eligibility threshold of 130 percent of the poverty line for a family our size. At first, a weight lifted from our shoulders. The money we would’ve spent on food was reallocated to things like gas and my daughter’s preschool.
But there were still limits. Paper products, toiletries, and cleaning supplies didn’t qualify. We’d have to keep those in the budget. And while the financial burden lifted, a new one took its place: shame.
I felt it creep in the first time I used my EBT card, and it grew each time I ran into a congregant or neighbor at the store. It climaxed one day when I intentionally laid my credit card on top of my EBT card to conceal it as I swiped the reader. In that moment, I knew I had a bigger problem than finances.
Today, a decade later, I can see how shame dominated my experience of SNAP, manifesting in behaviors like overthinking my purchases and avoiding friends and neighbors while shopping. I can trace some of that shame to the fact that eating itself is a deeply spiritual act. As theologian Norman Wirzba puts it in Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, “To receive food as a gift and as a declaration of God’s love and joy is to receive food in a theological manner.” But what happens when we can’t access the very food that declares God’s love and joy? What happens when a means of grace becomes a means of judgment?
As our family struggled to afford food, I would often hear careless comments from my Christian brothers and sisters. Conservative political rhetoric melded with spiritual language, sometimes to the point of thoughtlessly blaming the hungry for their own suffering. Paul’s instruction that “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10) was wielded like a cudgel.
Instead of serving as a warning against idleness, becoming a busybody, or drifting away from orthodoxy—the context Paul gives four verses prior in 2 Thessalonians 3:6—this interpretation simply condemned those who needed assistance as obviously not working hard enough. If we live in a land of abundance and opportunity, how could anyone but the lazy go hungry?
Add to this the language of “welfare queens” and the perpetual suspicion about whether SNAP participants were using benefits “responsibly”—whether our purchases were both healthy and frugal, or whether we were buying “fudge rounds”—and you can begin to understand why I hid in shame.
Of course, many Christians never think or speak this way. Many are deeply compassionate and make sacrifices to help those facing food insecurity. It is often churches and Christians, after all, who stock food pantries, support food kitchens, and organize backpack programs to combat childhood hunger. It is Christians who show up at church dinners with casseroles in tow. It is Christians who celebrate our faith with a meal.
When we used SNAP benefits, I found myself wrestling with these contrasts among my fellow Christians—and a conflict within myself. On the one hand, I was deeply grateful to God for providing for our family. I loved being able to feed my children healthy food, to watch their young bodies grow and develop.
At the same time, I felt isolated from and abandonded by the very people I worshipped beside every Sunday. Even worse, I felt they would judge me if they knew how I kept my family fed. I knew we weren’t idle or unorthodox busybodies, and that I had no choice but to access subsidies. But because of the messages I’d heard, I also couldn’t shake the sense that I was doing something wrong. And if I was in the wrong, I felt I had to hide what I was doing.
In total, our family used SNAP benefits for three years until my husband found a position that compensated him fairly. By then, I’d worked through my feelings of shame and was actually beginning to take joy in God’s provision of food.
Though I now realize my shame was unfounded, that did not make it any less real or any less harmful to my soul. And while none of us can singlehandedly dismantle the larger narratives that encouraged it, each of us can make small adjustments to ensure we’re not reinforcing those patterns.
We can take care of how we speak about programs that provide needed care for the poor, remembering that a debate is only theoretical if your life isn’t at the center of it. We can extend the freedom we enjoy in our own food choices to those who are dependent on social safety nets. In a word, though we may differ in our political preferences, we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I understand why so many feel “Rich Men North of Richmond” gives voice to their struggle. Perhaps the only thing worse than watching your hard work be exploited and your dreams go up in smoke is the sense that no one notices and no one cares.
But protest against wealthy elites and government corruption, no matter how justified, cannot ride on the backs of others who are also suffering. The price of accessing food through SNAP or a church food pantry must not be the poor’s dignity and self-worth.
Instead of trafficking in easy caricatures and political tropes, we must understand that the plight of our food-insecure neighbors is our plight as well. Put more simply, we must see their God-given humanity and honor it—something I’m certain Anthony himself would affirm.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.