Actress Tichina Arnold is revealing a bit of on-the-set trivia regarding one of the most classic episodes of the hit television sitcom on which she starred: “Everybody Hates Chris.” The Queens native shared in a recent interview, while the show was based on Chris Rock’s life, one particular storyline around food stamps was a true story of her life.
Art Imitates Life
Arnold shared in an interview with Page Six that the script where Rock’s fictional father, Julius, finds $200 worth of food stamps, brings them to his wife, Tonya (played by Arnold), and she shuts his plan down to use the stamps was something that her parents actually went through.
In the episode, Tonya gives a reason why she doesn’t want to use the grocery vouchers, saying, “When I pull out food stamps, people look at me like I ain’t got no husband; they talk to me like I ain’t got no sense; they treat me like I ain’t got no class.”
The 53-year-old says she walked them through the episode sharing the way her mother responded to the same situation.
The multi-hyphenate said, “The food stamps episode was totally my mother because that really happened to me. My dad bought home food stamps one time and my mother was like, ‘I’m not using no food stamps.’ It’s not a bad thing to do.”
She continued, “You have a lot of mothers who had children who fed their children on food stamps but never told them that they were getting fed through food stamps.”
Food Stamps Have Been Around
The Food Stamp Program was first started in 1939, at the start of the second World War, and the first recipient was a white woman named Mabel McFiggin of Rochester, New York. By 1943, more than 20 million Americans had used the form of support, totaling almost half of the nation’s population at the time, USDA reports.
Over the years, the modality of distribution of this public assistance program has changed and the perception around receiving the aid has also.
The FSP now falls under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP and is primarily for low-income parents to feed their families. Families qualify for SNAP if the household’s annual pre-tax income equals or is less than $25,760 if there’s one person working in the home, $34,840 if there are two and $43,920 if there are three.
The need is still great and more money is actually being extended to those in dire straits, specifically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
USDA data reports almost 41 million people (a little over 12 percent of the nation) enrolled in the food stamp program in the first half of the year. The average monthly benefit per person is about $218.
CNN reports, “Monthly benefits are going up 12.5%, or $104 for a family of four, thanks to soaring inflation, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That brings the maximum benefit for this size household to $939 a month, up from $835.”
Dottie Rosenbaum, director of federal SNAP policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “It will put SNAP benefits better in line with the increase in the cost of food over the past year.”
While many people are still receiving public assistance, there has traditionally been a political and social shame around using food stamps.
The Stigma of the Welfare Queen
In the ’70s and ’80s, around the time that Arnold was growing up, the myth of the Black Welfare Queen put a stigma on those people, predominantly women and children, who participated in the program. According to PBS, presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton used the nation’s disdain for the poor and the needy to undergird their campaigns, adding to the shame of being on public assistance and receiving food stamps.
Other ways that Arnold recalls receiving assistance, though not through the SNAP program, was receiving bright orange processed boxed cheese commonly referred to as “government cheese.” The blocks were given out at food pantries for the vulnerable and needy, who were oftentimes welfare recipients.
“Of course, I had government cheese. Everybody had government cheese,” she joked. “That’s the cheese that you don’t know what the government put in that cheese. You can put it in the oven for seven hours and it will not melt. I don’t miss government cheese but that was a moment in time that made us stronger.”
A Bright Star
With an estimated net worth of $2 million and a career that has lasted over 40 years, it would seem that government cheese is far from the dining palate of Arnold. Still, she will continue to humorously talk about it and food stamps to bring attention to those who may be in need.
The star’s focus is not only bringing awareness to food insecurity through her art but also helping children impacted by abuse and neglect and reform, through giving to an organizations like First Star and Brotherhood Crusades.