The welfare office is like the DMV, except everybody here is poor. The sprawling office, which covers the first floor of a spacious municipal building, is a mix of waiting rooms and, behind closed doors, offices. The waiting rooms are segregated by wall color, but it's so crowded on a late autumn afternoon that even though I have a blue ticket, I have to wait around the corner, in the white section, before I can advance to the blue. To wait some more.
I've come to apply for food stamps. I'm not unemployed—I'm working a few days a week here at The L Magazine and a few others in Midtown retail—but you'd hardly know it from peeking at my bank statements. Every month, once my student loans and rent and utility bills and credit card debts (most of which I accrued by charging my rent for several months while unemployed) are paid off, I'm left with roughly $75 a week to spend as I see fit; more than half of that goes to groceries, so I can cook at home almost every meal I eat. With the rest, I literally buy peanuts.
I know I'm not hopelessly destitute, that I've never really known hunger, and that things could be worse—that seeing a movie or treating your girlfriend to dinner in a restaurant once in a while is a privilege, not a right—but, man, I could also really use some of that cash I spend on food every week! Especially because I'm also a newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetic, which means I now need to buy insulin, needles, blood testing strips and finger prickers every month, as well as pay for doctor's visits; even with (relatively low-grade) health insurance, those add up.
I've long considered applying for food stamps, but kept putting it off, thinking that I didn't fit the prevailing stereotype of who should get groceries via government assistance. I have a Master's degree. I'm not starving. I don't have kids. I'm white. And I could make more money if I surrendered my career ambitions—if I stopped being a "writer"—and, say, went back to being a "scanning technician" for the temp agency, where I earned $13 an hour to make electronic copies of hard files for eight hours a day. To some extent, my penury seems self-inflicted.
Such race- and class-based assumptions about government handouts erupted last month when Salon published "Hipsters on Food Stamps," a piece about twenty- and thirty-somethings using government assistance to buy ingredients for meals like "roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes." The article provoked 66 pages of comments, mostly backlash. "Did it ever cross their minds to look for a second job," one commenter wrote, "so they could afford to satisfy their gourmet palate, instead of relying on government? Or do they seriously expect to be able to afford that kind of lifestyle working in the art world?" As though white children of privilege are gaming the system, that their poverty is as phony as the tears in their jeans. Poverty looks a certain way (unsophisticated, black) and this ain't it, most of the commenters seemed to be saying.
Unlike Salon's peanut gallery, the NYC Human Resources Administration encourages anyone to apply: "You can be employed, own your own home and car, have money saved and still be eligible for Food Stamps," reads one piece of city literature. "Each application is evaluated on an individual basis and qualifying is based on income." You need not be destitute!
Finally, my father convinces me to fill out the paperwork by telling me that services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are intended for people like me. They're intended to help the Working Poor: those who put in 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week and barely break even at the end of the month.
So here I am, waiting in a room to move on to the next waiting room.