People In My Neighborhood

A blog about some residents of Nashua, New Hampshire

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon
Nashua, New Hampshire, USA
June 21
To get updates from this blog on Facebook, please like this page: Or on Twitter follow @LiviaGershon. This is a blog about some of my neighbors. Like a lot of people who spend considerable time reading newspapers and websites, I sometimes feel I’m more familiar with the lifestyles of the kinds of people who show up in the lifestyle sections of the paper than with the lives of people who are way closer to my income level. This is an attempt to find out more about the working- and middle-class people around me. I live in Nashua, New Hampshire, which isn’t a poor city. The average job in the metropolitan area pays about $28 an hour, according to the state agency that collects that kind of information. Unemployment in the area is under 5 percent. But I’m continually astonished by how hard things are for many people I see every day. I chose people to interview for this blog pretty much at random. I didn’t pick them out because I thought their stories would illustrate a particular political or economic idea. They’re just people I saw around who were generous enough to talk with me.


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JULY 9, 2012 9:08AM

Welfare and Cigarettes

Rate: 26 Flag

convenience store 

On Friday, the speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, William O’Brien, suggested the state should pass a law to stop people on welfare from spending their benefits on tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets. Sitting next to him at the press conference was a woman who lost her job at a convenience store after refusing to sell a pack of cigarettes to a man paying with an electronic benefit transfer card.

“Jackie Whiton had the courage to stand up as an employee of a store to say ‘Enough,’” O’Brien said, according to the Nashua Telegraph. “We are not going to let her courage go unanswered.”

Aside from the slight oddity of a top state official congratulating someone for refusing to do her job, the story isn’t unusual. Lots of states are trying to make this sort of move, and my Facebook news feed frequently brings me forwarded demands to stop food stamp recipients from buying soda or to drug test anyone getting government benefits.

Some of the arguments clearly stem from the bipolar right-wing mindset that says the economy is terrible, and anyone who’s unemployed needs to go out and find a job. Still, they’re emotionally compelling. Whenever I’m talking with someone for this blog about how they’re feeding their kids with food stamps, and then I see them pull out a cigarette, I feel a swell of disapproval. Usually, though, I find my perspective switches quickly, especially if I happen to call to mind the time I wouldn’t let my husband quit smoking.

We were living in California at the time, but we were right about to move back to the East Coast. I told him no way was he quitting until we were moved in back east. Of course I wanted him to stop smoking. I just couldn’t imagine being caged in for a whole road trip with the edginess and general bad attitude that comes with nicotine withdrawal.

Many of the people I talk to for this blog—at least the ones who get food stamps or housing subsidies or some kind of other assistance—are facing much bigger stressors than a three-day car ride. Take Nicole, who’s raising three kids with a mentally ill boyfriend on a budget so tight that she has to worry about how to pay for both soap and shampoo. She pays for basic cable because she doesn’t want to be left out of conversations about what’s going on in the news. Should I judge her because I don’t have cable?

Or, take “Red Rooster.” After 20 years driving a truck, he lost his job when the economy tanked, and he’s got heart problems that keep him out of work. He gets government benefits. And he drinks quite a bit of beer, though his doctor says he shouldn’t. Would it help anything to kick him off welfare?

These aren’t new questions. Back in the 1930s, George Orwell described upper-class, health-minded experts telling poor people that they ought to eat better in language that’s remarkably close to what we hear from their modern counterparts. And his response is still just as good as it was then:

“Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.”

Orwell writes about the cheap, satisfying food of the poor—tea and chips and margarine on white bread—but he couldn’t have envisioned the farm subsidies that make corn- and soy-based, ubiquitously advertised, ultraprocessed snacks the cheapest thing you can buy. Reversing backwards policies that affect the entire food stream would, of course, do far more to keep people healthy than micromanaging how poor people can use their benefits.

When it comes to things like cigarettes and lottery tickets, it’s probably a good idea to remember that people who get cash benefits that could buy those things are likely to be under particular stress. Back before Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, 96 percent of poor families with kids in New Hampshire received cash benefits. In 2009, it was 39 percent. Nationally, the percentage fell from 75 to 28 percent. The money generally comes with work requirements and lifetime limits on collecting, and it’s only available to people who can prove they’re in intensely difficult straits to start with.

Even people just getting food stamps—a significantly larger group—are, almost by definition, in a state of acute or prolonged crisis. They’ve lost a job and run out of savings, or they’re working for $10 an hour with two kids at home, or they were diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t keep doing their job.

Most of us have worse excuses than that for our drinking and smoking and junk food habits. Certainly that’s true of me, and, as it happens, I’m a welfare recipient too. In at least one recent year, my family made little enough money that we got an earned income tax credit—free money from the government.  After we bought a house two years ago, we also got an $8,000 first-time homebuyers credit. That’s $2,000 more than the average participant in the state’s cash benefits program gets in a year, and four times as much as the average food stamp recipient gets. But, since the money went straight to our bank account, not into a distinctive card, I don’t get dirty looks when I pick up a 12-pack of microbrew at the supermarket.

Our societal tolerance for people getting government money rises even more when it comes to the upper end of the economy. I doubt executives at G.E., a company that managed to pay no federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010, would feel much shame about buying steak for the company barbecue.

In the end, whether we’re empathetic to a smoker who gets food stamps or a profitable corporation that doesn’t pay taxes is probably not all that important. Government policies are supposed to be about achieving desirable social outcomes, like healthy kids with halfway stable homes. Saying that’s something we can shoot for only once parents agree to live on oranges and wheat bread—in the face of the daily stresses caused by an economic system where they can’t hope to find a decent job—doesn’t make for a particularly effective policy.

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See, I don't buy scratch lottery tickets. I think they're silly and a waste of money. I've felt my disapproval rising when I see people buying reams of the things and because of the work I do, I know these people are on benefit.

I had an insight one day when I realized that I'd spend the same amount of money on some fancy skin care products promising me to keep my wrinkles at bay. We're both buying hope. I'm betting against the odds to keep my youthful good looks (ahem) and they're betting against the odds to be overnight millionaires not likely for either of us.
What an insane idea!
Would anyone try to tell a person, who got his money from his job, what he can spend it on? Hell no!
So what then gives anyone the right to try to tell someone who got his money any other way, how to spend it.

Oh. Yes. They got it from your taxes through the government. So do the politicians. So do all those government workers who arrogantly treat you like shit whenever you need to deal with them. Ar e you also going to try to tell them what they can spend "your" tax dollars on?

Yeah. Right. That'll be the day.
Zillionaires, benefiting from low tax rates, don't take our advice on how to spend their money, and we can't expect the poverty-stricken to either - nor each other. Would be nice if the welfare people avoided all vices and foolishness, but, alas, being poor usually doesn't do a whole lot for one's morale.
I think there's some dignity in choice. I don't think that should be taken away. Nice post.
I get why people go nuts about this. If someone, especially someone with kids, is spending fifty bucks a month on nonessential items, the worry is that the family isn't being fed. But I certainly see the other side, too. I have to lean towards empowering people to make their own choices, even if I don't agree.
As someone whose entire paychecks go to bills/child care/debt/etc, I have sympathy for those in worse situations as I understand the desire to get things that aren't "good" for you, but make you feel good.


Food stamps are "food" stamps, not "misc consumables" stamps. They are meant to make sure someone doesn't go hungry (at least theoretically). Nicotine & alcohol are both drugs NOT necessary for life, and I don't think that the money meant for food should go to them. This is the 'government's money' and I think that they do have the right to dictate what it can be spent on. If those on food stamps want to spend what cash they have on other things, go for it. You mention the housing credit you got. Were you able to take that $8K and go for a European vacation? That cash wasn't just given to you, it had a specific purpose (home ownership). Same for food stamps.

PS, I don't agree that the women who lost her job should've kept it. If the rules say food stamps can get used for cigarettes, she should've sold it to them and kept her opinion to herself, or lobbied her local legislature to change the rules.
And here all along I thought that the right wing agenda was all about freedom from government interference.
My rent and Cobra payment are 20% more than my monthly unemployment compensation. When the savings are gone, we're screwed. Pardon me while I go light up a cigarette. And anybody who doesn't like it can go.....
I love peanut butter and jam sandwiches and raw carrots in the summer. I also occasionally buy a lottery ticket, just to give the universe the opportunity to be on my side. I've never won, but I enjoy the daydream. I wouldn't deny the same to anyone. Even poor people deserve to have some pleasure in their lives. Right?
I see lots of people who "can't afford" therapy co-pay or medication but spent money on alcohol, cigarettes, or even drugs. Sorry, I don't buy it.
It's interesting to me that we haven't heard much defense of people who smoked, drank and had fun instead of paying their mortgages.

I'm not going to get involved in discussing whether people are entitled to spend their entitlements they way they want, but I will point out that choice is a luxury that, in the end, may be unaffordable. When there's only enough of a commodity — money, food, whatever — to barely go around, defending choice doesn't make it go farther.
Really good, well-reasoned post. Of course it doesn't make sense to spend limited funds on foolish and even self-destructive purchases. But often there's a different mindset when your're living day to day and dollar to dollar. No one's making five-year plans or thinking about whole wheat v. Wonder Bread when they're on welfare. That lottery ticket may be a poor person's version of an artisan organic hand-crafted ice-cream cone. As you've pointed out so skillfully, welfare isn't just for the poor and neither are poor choices.
I would like to suggest something: let have our taxes split between those who believe that OUR money should be used for any purposes by people who are supposedly not able to make it on their own - these people should pay more in taxes, and those like me who believe that food stamps should be used just for that - buying food, and we should pay less, because if people are able to buy lottery tickets, cigarets, and alcohol with my money, they should receive less in food stamps! Anyone who works for money can use their money anyway they want to, and those who don't work and get money from our pay checks, should get a minimum - just enough for food. It's not so difficult to figure out how much it should be.
Well why not just short circuit the process and go directly to workhouses. To be fair to the smokers, they pay mucho tax on their purchases and check out of all public benefit systems around 7 years earlier than their more virtuous counterparts.
This makes me want to eat a Twinkie. Wait.. Are they still legal? R tickets? really? when I was on SNAP (about 2 years ago), I couldn't even buy soap or house cleaning supplies with it. Why the heck should> it pay for lotto tickets? That's just dumbass.
Cigarettes, those are what, 9 dollars a pack now (in Chicago). The monthly budget for a single person on food stamps is 200. Yeah...that isn't going to work well either.
I am nominating V.Corso's comment for a weekly Reader's Pick. The "buying hope" statement struck a chord.
The hatred of the poor is based on (realsitic) fear of becoming one of them any day now: "If only they would behave better the worldwide capitalist system would not have collapsed, as it has so many times before." That is the fantasy. Blame the victims.
Do the SNAP regulations change from state to state? I'm in Georgia (a very stingy state all around) and you can only buy food with the SNAP cards.

It is annoying to watch anybody burn their money by smoking, even if they earn it themselves. But that's probably because I've never smoked, and can't understand why anybody would want to.
What a marvelous opportunity to rub people's noses in that they are poor. Poor people, by law, should have to wear a sign hanging down their back saying "Kick Me! I'm just a piece of human garbage." Serve them right for being poor. If they get treated badly enough they might get desperately angry enough to start robbing people as many of the rich do. Good for their character!
I have a friend (no kids) who now has very little in life. Just lost her part-time job. But she always finds money to pay on her cell phone bill, and goes to the 'rez' once a month for a carton of cheap smokes. Without either of her crutches, I really do think she would go mad. The thought of being without even for a day is unbearable to her, and who am I to lecture her on thriftiness, on oranges and whole wheat bread?
This is so frustrating. We see people in the ER everyday who "cannot afford their prescription medications." Crucial medicines, blood pressure, heart, insulin that will cause big problems when not taken. Some of them have cigarettes, some will test positive for non-prescribed pain meds and illegal drugs and alcohol. Some will have expensive cell phones (much nicer than mine). Some of them are doing the best they can but they appear to be in the minority. When asked why they did not buy medicine before cigarettes and alcohol they look at us like we are crazy. We are sympathetic to the problems of addiction but really do not want to support the problem.
I've never been on welfare, but I do know that I'm never more tempted to throw around money than when I'm flat out broke. It's a very, very human reaction to the stress of hard times. Orwell really nailed it.
I disapprove of smoking and gambling by all people rich or poor. They are bad habits. But it's a free country, isn't it?
Food stamps are supposed to be a safety net, not a ticket to use tax dollars to fund discretionary luxury and vices... Prostitution is legal in Nevada - using your logic you believe that the card can be used to pay for sex there if it helps relieve stress? Either you are hungry and need food or you don't. Use other funds to pay for this stuff - not government support. Can't cope? Use your Medicaid benefit to seek psychiatric or psychological assistance and medication.

Reality sucks sometimes. Grow up. This is an example of why the 50% of Americans who pay income tax get pissed off.

BTW, I agree that the shop clerk should not get her job back.
I agree with Liberal Southern Democrat. I don't care if people smoke, drink or buy lottery tickets with their money, but it should probably come after health care things. There just isn't enough money to go around.
This issue is a diversion, distraction, re-direction. People spending an already cut to the bone welfare pittance on shit the pious moralists don't approve of has ZERO effect on the national budget. Or local or state ones. Guard against fraud and then stfu.

Like the famous bank robber said about robbing banks because "that's where the money is." The financial problems of this country won't be solved until someone has the courage to go where the money is and take it back from the super-entitled - the rich.

And to whoever said that food stamps are meant to make sure someone doesn't go hungry: wrong. They are meant to subsidize the ag industry, with most of the subsidy going to rich corporate farms.

The puritans - well, I suppose that's a problem that will never be solved.
Nowhere in the post did it say that the person was buying cigarettes with food stamp money. Seems folks are letting their assumptions about the poor get ahead of their reading comprehension.

I suspect we'd save a lot more health care dollars if there were guaranteed preventive care and early treatment of problems rather than outlawing the purchase of liquor or cigarettes by the poor. It doesn't even add up. It costs a lot more to buy health insurance than cigarettes. The Calvinist streak that runs through this country leads folks to prefer to condemn than problem solve.
I always enjoy reading your posts! And, I agree with Myriad, "...being poor usually doesn't do a whole lot for one's morale."
The essential problem is psychological. When a person runs out of money for basics, food, clothing, shelter, and society is so arranged that people are uninsured for health and suffering, they are too old to qualify for work in a market where there are about twelve qualified people for every job opening, where thing are only getting worse, the do not feel like members of society anymore. They are about as depressed as any human can be. And when some self righteous asshole tells them they can't have a smoke or a drink to perhaps give them a brighter momentary outlook that is about as crappy a treatment as anybody can get. I find that pretty damned disgusting.
this actually sounds like a reasonable idea at first glance but when you think about it a little more it should be a lower priority than some of the other things that should be considered related if it is necessary at all which I doubt.

One simple point to make is the fact that the politicians that make the most noise about this are often the same ones that protect the rights of businesses making money off of gambling or cigarettes or the revenue that the state receives from the lottery. This includes providing people with more accurate information about these and other consumer choices. Generally they provide the most protection when it comes to speech to those with the most money regardless of what kind of ads they by or how accurate their speech is. they provide distorted ads to lure people in and the truth is drowned out.

Think about how many people would gamble if they required an even playing field and ads were forced to include information about how the odds have to be fixed in favor of the house in order for the institution to survive. Instead they constantly say "You can win, you can win!!"

Honesty in advertising would destroy these industries.
Honesty in advertising is an oxymoron.
We all have our prejudices. There is a beautiful woman in our building, who raises two kids, holds two jobs and attends college. But the moment she got outside and lit up a cigarette, my first thought was "White Trash."