Charlotte Paige has spent much of her adult life piecing together jobs to raise her kids and pay the bills. She's worked at Burger King, cleaned office buildings Downtown, and, most recently, was a certified nursing assistant. But then the woman she was caring for died, and the cartilage in Paige's knees gave out.
That was "the last good job I had," says Paige, 51. "I just couldn't do it anymore."
She has been enrolled in the food-stamp program for 20 years, but for the past two, disability, food stamps and child support have been the only sources of income for Paige and her teenage son. (Paige also has an adult daughter.)
Last month, her food stamps were reduced from $94 to $74 per month — and that's only the most recent cut. She says it has been cut two other times in the past year because of changes in her other benefits.
Paige owns her own home, with what she says is a modest monthly mortgage payment of $500. She receives $730 in monthly disability payments; her son, who was born with a serious abnormality in his hand, receives a similar amount. And yet, she says, "I got to run to the food banks 'cause I don't have enough. I do whatever I can to make ends meet."
The food banks make "a lot of difference," she says. "They gave me three packs of meat, and the church brought me a turkey dinner."
Putting food on the table wasn't a problem growing up in Homewood with her five siblings. Her father worked 35 years as a mechanic for Heinz and her mother was a housekeeper in Squirrel Hill.
But as a student at Westinghouse High School, "I got messed up with the wrong crowd doing things I wasn't supposed to do ... drinking and stuff, skipping school." She eventually dropped out.
"My mother taught us better than that — I didn't want to listen" Paige says, adding that if her life had been less turbulent, "things would have been a lot different."
She later obtained her GED and took classes through the Community College of Allegheny County, but found it difficult to find jobs that brought in enough money.
And lots of employers "wouldn't hire [because] I wasn't working at a place long enough," she says, adding that jumping from job to job was a financial necessity: "You get paid minimum wage, that's not enough."
When Paige's son was 14, she decided it was time to explain that she needed his help saving as much food as possible, so they didn't run out by the end of the month. "I told him, ‘We can't get what we used to — you can't eat it all at one time,'" she says. "He didn't want his friends or nobody to know."
But Paige says she can't afford to worry about whether people see a stigma in depending on government aid for food.
"I really don't care," Paige says. "I have to feed my family."