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.
In February, 1.7 million New York City residents received food stamp benefits, an almost 20 percent increase from the same time last year, and more than a 50 percent increase from the same time in 2005. The number of recipients has grown steadily, every month, over the last 24 months.
At the same time, the city has scaled back its processing capacities. My first attempt to get food stamps is thwarted: I visit my local welfare office in Bay Ridge and discover that as of last month it no longer accepts food stamp applications. Instead, I'm handed a list of alternate sites, the nearest and most accessible of which is ten subway stops and a short walk away.
I visit the Fort Greene Center the following week. I have everything I think I'll need: pay stubs going back several weeks, loan statements, credit card statements, bank statements, months worth of bills, my lease. I printed out the form at work and filled it out at home. I'm starting to get excited—I'm looking forward to a little extra cash every week, even if it's just a little.
I finally make it to the second waiting room, the blue room, where about 50 people sit nearly knee-to-knee in hard plastic chairs. We each have a numbered ticket, and a digital sign at the front of the room flashes the number of who's being served. Hours of newspaper and magazine reading later—this is not unlike jury duty—my number comes up. I'm led behind The Door and through a labyrinth of interlocked cubicles.
... The chart on my caseworker's wall says that an unmarried, childless person has to make roughly less than $1,200 a month, before taxes, to qualify for food stamps. That sounds like me, I think, just about. I hand the woman my lease, my utility bills, my pay stubs. But she doesn't want to see any of the other papers I've brought with me. She feeds my information into a program that processes it quicker than she enters it.
The government factors several considerations into determining your eligibility: your rent, your utility expenses. But, especially for a young, childless single man like myself, little else. It doesn't take the computer long to tell her that it looks like I make too much money—about $40 a week too much.
She leaves for a long time, as though to discuss the matter with a supervisor, but returns with the same firm verdict. If I want to qualify for food stamps, I'd have to quit my retail gig, she suggests. But, if I made $300 or $400 less a month, which essentially I do, I'd qualify. So I try to fight. I decide not to mention my credit card bills—fine, my fault—but what about school? I repay almost $300, the minimum, toward my student loans every month. Doesn't that count?
"No," she says sadly. Having gone to school is also, apparently, my fault. College debt may make you poor in practice, but not on paper. I had filled myself with so much lofty and self-pitying rhetoric about why I deserved food stamps that it's a real blow to be denied. My eyes begin to water. I push on.
"I just found out I have diabetes," I tell her tearfully. "Doesn't that matter?" She frowns and tells me no, even though I now have to spend extra money on healthy food, because if I were to go back to living off ramen noodles I'd risk losing my eyesight. Possibly a foot.
It's the end of the day, and I feel bad for this woman with no control over government guidelines, having to watch some young man in her office try not to cry as he lays out his impecunity. Friends later joke that I should father a child to increase the size of my household.
As I walk back up Bergen Street to the subway, I do some rough math in my head to calculate how many fewer units of insulin I should inject if I start restricting the size of my meals. Also, now suddenly on the other side of the debate, I find myself detesting those hipsters feasting on roasted rabbit on my taxable and much-needed dimes. Their poverty is so fucking fake.