The Story of Rebecka and Jourie
The piece detailing “EBT day” in Woonsocket in the Washington Post this Sunday was sad and frustrating all at once. That’s what made it a good piece. It showed how Woonsocket has come to rely on 12 days a year for its economic health: the first day of each month when SNAP EBT cards are “re-stocked” with money. It focused on a store owner who organized his business around the beginning of each month. It also focused on a young couple who relied on SNAP. This is part of the sad:
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.
Quickly followed by the frustrating:
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…
They made some of the all too typical mistakes: teen pregnancy, move in together, have another child on their already low income and all exacerbated by a recession where the low-skilled are first and worst hit. Their economic ignorance and inability to prioritize is displayed by their $110 cell phone bill and tatoo parlor debt. That won’t help earn them much sympathy.
Yet, while they don’t seem to really “get it”–and I don’t want to give them a pass–society and the system certainly enable their naivete and ignorance. In today’s world, having a cell phone is simply a given–well nigh a “right” in the eyes of many–and spending money on tatoo’s is another norm, like getting your ears pierced used to be. That’s what you spend your cash, your “extra” money, on. Food comes from SNAP.
However, despite these misplaced, even learned, priorities, it is also evident that they aren’t satisfied with their current life. They seem to innately know that it needs to get better and they are trying to work and do the right thing. But it looks like they need direction.
The article doesn’t mention if either is enrolled in the SNAP Employment & Training program like that offered at Family Resources Community Action in Woonsocket, which also offers financial literacy courses. (The center also offers direction in “Income Supports – Connections to public benefits and other financial support”. My cynical side suspects this is probably a bit more popular than the get back to work programs). More troubling to me is that the article also doesn’t mention if either have family support. Or if they are taking it. Or if the family of either are any better off in their economic literacy, for example. In short, are Rebecka and Jourie following the same path as their parents? We don’t know and that is a bit of context that seems relevant.
Regardless of how they got to where they are now, the couple seems to be at a tipping point. They can either resign themselves to treading water, captured in the government “safety net” or they can try to swim to the real safety of self-suffiency by using the programs available to them. Let’s hope for their sake and for their kids that they learn to swim.