The Stigma of Need

The first time it was suggested to me that I go on welfare I was 24-years-old. I had just left a job at a large non-profit (the kind you have to raise your own funds for) and started working part time again. I was used to part time work. I worked my way through college, often juggling 2-3 minimum wage jobs. “I got this.” I told myself, it didn’t seem like a big deal to be leaving my job.

The truth is I never received a full paycheck from that job. Like many minorities, I found the traditional method of supporting my salary through fundraising a challenge and was never fully funded. This time around, however, housing was also a struggle. I was no longer a student cramming into a small apartment with 3 other housemates to mitigate my cost of living. I needed to pay rent. But at minimum wage, affording an apartment in Minnesota wasn’t going to happen.

“You should apply for SNAP” my friend told me. Her suggestion made me pause. It had never occurred to me that I’d be eligible. If you’re unfamiliar with it, SNAP is a nutritional assistance program, more commonly known as food stamps. You’re not eligible as a student, so it hadn’t dawned on me that now I would qualify.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine.” I bristled before she could finish her suggestion. The truth is I was embarrassed she’d suggested it. Here I was with a degree, working over 40 hours a week and I still couldn’t support myself. I was already living out of her basement for the second time.  

On top of that, I know the stigma. I wasn’t going to fulfill the stereotypes others have of people of color on food stamps. I wasn’t going to be the welfare queen. I was told education was the golden ticket. Shouldn’t I be able to take care of myself now? As silly as it may sound I felt that applying for SNAP somehow negated all my degree represented. I already felt needy enough because I was unable to sustain my own housing.

My need exposed me. I had to face my own stigma around sufficiency, work and meritocracy. It wouldn’t be the first time. A few years later, I’ve found myself in this familiar place. I was laid off from my job last year. I’ve had to talk myself into taking unemployment and wrestle with the implications of it. It’s a conversation stopper when someone asks what you do and you tell them you’re unemployed.

Why is it that certain needs have stigma? We are so quick to rush judgement on those who receive disability, unemployment or SNAP. We don’t dare stigmatize those who participate in government programs like tax returns, the GI Bill, home buying incentives or educational credit. The stigma is around the way we define need. We want to hide our hearts from the truth that we are insufficient.

When I’m in these places of need I often hear well-worn verses and advice that are tainted with the notions that something will be fixed, changed or promised to me. I cannot count how many times I’ve been quoted Jeremiah 29:11. But I have learned by now that sometimes the heartache isn’t resolved. It doesn’t add up, and things are just hard. There will always be some sort of need–whether it be emotional, spiritual or physical.

I’m still asking: What does it mean that God says “I’ll supply all of your needs?” (Phil. 4:19) To be honest, these words often ring hollow to me. They don’t make sense. They get twisted in my heart and mind and sound distorted, like when a cassette gets eaten in a tape player. (Yes, I did just reference a cassette tape).

My heart jumps to extremes. My characterization of God ping-pongs between depravity and scarcity. It’s the prosperity gospel, I tell myself. Certainly, God doesn’t mean ALL my needs, that’s selfish, it’s materialism. I view God through a lens of stinginess, comparing my needs and life to everyone else’s.

When I’m in an unhealthy place, my needs set me apart– I’m single, underemployed and have unstable housing. I’ll gladly use this as ammunition against God. “Don’t you see my need?” I cry. I don’t understand why some of my basic needs (and desires) go unfulfilled.

But the truth is we all hold need. Mine just tend to be more obvious and external. It’s when I concede that the needs I have are sometimes irresolvable and inexplicable that God shows up. My confession becomes an entry point to a greater spiritual truth: The Kingdom of Heaven is found in recognizing my need (Matthew 5). God’s sufficiency is more about God’s presence than God’s actions.

Sufficiency means God doesn’t turn me away in my needy state. God listens. God hears. God sees. My situation may not change, but neither does God.

“Look at your own poverty

welcome it

cherish it

don’t be afraid

share your death

because thus you will share your love and your life” – Jean Vanier

Ruthie Johnson