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MY TURN

I'm on welfare. I smoke. I am not a social parasite.

Must my habit be up for debate?

I wish that my purchase of a pack of cigarettes wasn't an issue for public debate, but as a recipient of Supplemental Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid benefits, it suddenly seems that it is.

I receive $698 a month cash from the Social Security Administration for a health condition that has persisted since adolescence. (I applied for Social Security in December 2009; it wasn't until last month that I finally was approved for benefits.) I receive $200 a month for food stamps. The rent at my studio apartment is $550 a month, leaving me $148 a month to spend on everything I need besides food and shelter - which I am grateful to have. To live in a country where there is a minimum social protection floor at this standard of living is something billions of people do not benefit from.

Can I spend $5.87 on a pack of cigarettes? Is that okay, I wonder, as tears well in my eyes reading commentators describing people like me as social parasites. Ironically, the same people obsessed with individualism and the free market seem to need to tell individuals how to spend their money. Why do people who are sick or unemployed need to justify their spending habits, simply because they are in receipt of support from their community (transferred via the government in the form of cash)?

Is every taxpayer I encounter entitled to a rundown of my medical condition, shelter expenses, etc.? Why do people feel license to lambaste the poor, speak of us as leeches, as a problem that needs to be exterminated?

I hope this column provokes thought and not hatred. I know it is uncommon for even the poor among us not to feign shame and brave endurance in the face of poverty. I will not: I'm poor, I'm on welfare, I smoke cigarettes, and I am not a social parasite.

(Christopher Borges lives in Manchester.)

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