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.