I'm using the social safety net for the first time in my life, and the pandemic has shown me there should be no shame in accessing these programs

The author is not pictured.Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • During the pandemic, I'm collecting unemployment and my kids are getting free school lunch for the first time.
  • There's a lot of shame in utilizing public safety net programs, but the pandemic has shown me how important they are for everyone.
  • The assistance we're getting is making an impact for my family, but it wouldn't have been enough to help us stay afloat if I wasn't still working some.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

"Lunch lady's here," my 5 year old yells before launching through the front door to say hello to the one non-family member she is allowed to socialize with these days. The lunch lady — wearing protective gloves and a mask — hands my daughter a tray with a bagged lunch and breakfast for the following day, before stepping back to chat from a safe distance.

The free meals, normally reserved for low-income students, are provided to all kids in our school district during the pandemic. They're delivered to bus stops, but since we live in a rural area and the bus normally picks my daughter up at home, our lunch and breakfast are brought right to the front door.

Meal delivery is just one way the social safety net has expanded to help keep me and my family safe during the pandemic. Over the past few years, my husband and I have scraped our way into the middle class, but we're incredibly thankful to have access to social safety-net programs right now. Advertisement

For the first time in our lives, we're utilizing free lunches and unemployment benefits. I always knew these programs were incredibly important, but this time has highlighted just how much security they provide, and where they still fall short.

A bagged lunch and a smile

In early April, our district began offering the free lunches. I hesitated before accepting, wondering if we were "taking advantage" of the program, but a friend who works in the district assured me they really wanted all kids to use the program. After a few weeks, the program expanded to include breakfast and lunch for the weekends, and even began delivering meals for my toddler, who isn't yet enrolled in school.

Knowing that my kids have breakfast and lunch delivered every day helps keep my grocery bills somewhat under control. This is especially important now, when our shopping bill has skyrocketed because all four family members are at home and snacking out of boredom a bit too often.
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However, the program is about so much more than a meal. It helps my daughter remain connected to her school community. It feels like an exciting surprise every day when she opens her bag. While the food is important, the emotional boost my girls get from the drop-off program is just as significant.

My first time on unemployment

Before school was cancelled and the severity of the pandemic had really revealed itself, New Hampshire announced that it would expand unemployment to cover gig workers, small business owners, and self-employed people, like me. I hadn't lost work at that point, but I truly felt a weight lifted, knowing I could tap into unemployment if I needed it. Soon, I did. The state lets people who are still working, but at reduced capacity, collect unemployment. With my income down by half some weeks, I knew it was time to put in an application. Advertisement

After navigating the confusing and slow website, I got an automatic denial for my application, since I was self-employed. An announcement on the site told me all self-employment applications had to be manually reviewed. The process ended up taking about three weeks for me.

Luckily, I still had some income trickling in during those weeks. I was able to pay bills and buy groceries. But when I saw how much I would be getting, I was shocked by how low it was.

In New Hampshire, the maximum weekly unemployment payment is $427. That wouldn't cover the mortgage and groceries for my family of four, let alone our other bills. Advertisement

The federal unemployment from the CARES Act, an additional $600 a week, makes a huge difference, but it's very clear to me that it's time to re-evaluate our unemployment system for the long term.

A loose grip on the middle class

I grew up poor. Over the past 10 years, my husband and I have worked very hard to improve our financial security. We have a lot of privilege and have made tons of progress, but oftentimes it still feels like we're teetering on the edge of breaking firmly into the middle class or continuing to live paycheck to paycheck. We're lucky that the small safety net programs that we're accessing are enough to keep us afloat right now. Five years ago, that wouldn't have been the case.

When I was a kid, I would have qualified for free school lunch programs, but my mom never wanted us to be judged for being poor. Today, I push back on that mindset, telling all my friends about how great the district's free lunch program during the coronavirus is. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it's that there should be no shame in utilizing safety net systems. What is shameful is a country with a safety net that is frayed, cracked, and just too small to catch the people who need it.Advertisement

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