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Here’s why a working family in Anchorage needs food aid to get by

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 22
  • Published April 22

Christine Potts and one of her daughters Kali Potts-Gilliatt sit at the dining room table in their apartment in south Anchorage on Thursday April 19, 2018. Christine Potts and her family receive food stamps to help her family make it through the month. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

When Christine Potts cooked a holiday dinner for her family of four, she spent $100. Her entire month's food budget is only $600. So the next time she went to a give-away for Thanksgiving dinner.

The Food Bank of Alaska and its partners provided fixings to 13,200 families last year. When Potts got her basket, there was a sign-up to be contacted to talk publicly about being a client. That's how I reached her.

I sat at Potts' kitchen table Thursday as she opened up her family finances, which I am going to share with you. See if you can figure out a better way for her to do it.

Potts lives with her husband, Troy Gilliatt, in a down-market apartment off Dimond Boulevard, with their two girls, Kharma, 7, and Kali, 4. On Thursday, Potts was home with Kali while Kharma was off with her father on his maintenance job. A neighbor's three kids romped around — Potts was tending them.

A stream of strangers came through the open door, up the steps from a dusty parking lot. The sound of traffic and the spring sunshine drifted in, too. The visitors traipsed through the toys to look at stuff Potts was selling on Craig's List and Facebook.

She is a sparkly bright person, fun to talk to, open and smart. She has worked as a medical and dental receptionist and almost got a degree in human services at Alaska Pacific University before her youngest child was born.

She believes in staying home with her girls. She reads to them through the day. Kharma learned to read in her lap. Potts times Kharma's reading every night. She's over 100 words a minute now, in second grade.

Kali can write her name, knows her letters and colors and can count to 15. She's a bright, outgoing girl, brave with strangers. You can tell right away, meeting a child, if she comes from a happy home with plenty of parental attention.

Potts looked into putting Kali in daycare so she could work full time. It would cost half of anything she could earn.

Potts' husband works full time at a job he loves, maintaining buildings for a landlord. It's a skilled job, but it doesn't pay enough, $18 an hour without benefits. He has previously worked in construction, but that industry isn't hiring many full-time workers now.

Gilliatt's job allows him to bring home items abandoned in apartments he cleans out. That's where Potts gets most of the stuff to sell.

A couple came in to look at an air hockey table. They said they would come back. A man bought a shoe rack but turned down a DVD surround-sound system Potts offered for $20. Three blue vases for sale sat on the kitchen table. She previously made $40 on a bucket of golf balls.

This money will pay for Kharma's birthday next month.

Christine Potts and her family receive food stamps to help her family make it through the month. She is selling the vases at right to help raise some money. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Potts also sells fancy nail treatments through a direct-marketing company called Color Street. To find customers she takes the girls to the Play Place at McDonalds and shows her nails to the other moms. Kali has the cute nails, too. It was the first thing she showed me.

But so far, all Potts has made is what she put into buying the products. She hopes it will turn into a lucrative business, but so far money is tight.

The family doesn't have internet or cable. Potts downloads coupons on her phone and shops carefully for sales. Kharma gets free breakfast and lunch at Willow Crest Elementary.

Gilliatt's first check of the month goes to rent. The second check covers food and everything else.

In the first part of the month, Potts uses a debit card for food provided by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, which most people still know by its old name, Food Stamps. It provides the family with $300 monthly for basic food—nothing prepared from the deli.

According the Alaska Food Coalition, and the Food Bank of Alaska, 45 percent of SNAP recipients are working families and 73 percent are families with children. The program provides 12 times as much food as all charities combined, the Food Bank says.

"We're not lazy, by any means," Potts said. "Neither one of us like the idea of being on public assistance. Making sure my kids are taken care of, I'm willing to swallow my pride a little bit."

The problem is that we've built an economy in which working class jobs don't pay enough to feed a family. And it's getting worse.

Decades of federal policy sought to redistribute wealth to the rich, away from working people. They succeeded. We have more billionaires and more families like Potts' than ever.

During the Republican administration of President Eisenhower, a period of historic growth, prosperity, and income equality, earnings over $200,000 a year were taxed at 94 percent. After President Trump's recent tax break, an equivalent income (about $2 million) will be taxed at 37 percent.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to reduce food aid to families like Potts'. A Republican bill that would cut off food for 1 million Americans is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If it passes, Potts would be forced to work full time when Kali is a little older. If either parent lost a job for more than a month, the family would lose benefits for a year.

The changes would save less than 10 percent of the $2.3 trillion cost of Trump's tax cut, which mostly benefited corporations and the rich.

These policies are destroying our country. When full-time skilled work doesn't provide enough money to raise children, society no longer works.

I hope I would do as well as Christine Potts and her husband in their shoes. They hustle for every dollar. They have plans to do better. But their kids have to eat.

"In the end my kids eating is more important than my ego," Potts said. "I'm grateful I can put food in their bellies."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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