It Happened to Me: I Was Rejected From Food Stamps

I'm poor enough that I have to choose between food and toilet paper, but not poor enough for food stamps, apparently.
Publish date:
April 9, 2012
issues, class issues, food politics, poor

I am the kind of person that doesn’t “deserve” food stamps -- you know the type. In this case, I am an able-bodied 24-year-old educated fat white person with no kids who comes from an upper middle class background and chose to work in a creative field.

Despite these shortcomings in the ranking of my purported deservedness, I feel entitled to eat food. Thanks for the unwarranted moral compass, American society, but I currently embody the working poor and pulling myself up by the bootstraps is neither easy nor graceful when already working six days a week.

My entitlement isn’t that I clocked so many hours in the library that I feel I deserve good grades on my transcript. It isn’t that I tried so hard throughout school and applying for jobs and I was such a good person to myself and others that I feel like I deserve some answer from the universe. No, this isn’t A for effort.

For the living breathing functioning person I am, I would like to have enough to eat every day. And deep down I know this is different than your run-of-the-mill entitlement.

When did I transition from the amusingly disadvantaged artistic person to the paycheck-to-paycheck mania I embody now?

I could have noticed the little things, like my dwindling savings account. Simple outings to bars or dinner with friends becoming more of a hostile cruel joke, even if it was just the taco truck and an iced tea. Bypassing the cobbler who would have inexpensively repaired my best boots before winter. Asking my accountant for a payment plan to do my taxes. Pushing bills and expenses back; and so on.

I remember having a panic attack outside of a packed brunch restaurant because I owed $15 (FIFTEEN DOLLARS) for my meal + tip and I couldn’t believe I allowed myself to leave the apartment and spend such an exorbitant about of money.

Each week I was asking myself if I should fix my boots or do my laundry or buy a Metrocard or get toilet paper or eat food. My shoes are still broken and my clothes are still in the hamper. I got to a certain point where every aspect of my life became relative to my poorness. And that’s when I realized I, like many others, might need government assistance.

Just a little background check: I’m a penny-pinching-thrift-expert and staff writer for Brokelyn (on top of my various other gigs). I’ve been tracking my finances for my entire adult life. I pay my rent and student loans on time every month. My idea of a hot date involves Netflix and a 6-pack of Simpler Times lager. I’ve never spent more than $600-per-month on rent. I solemnly swear I live modestly in every way possible.

But more on this later.

Since last fall, the only constants in the fridge have been the various condiments I’ve accrued from the last few years living in Brooklyn. Guyanese jerk seasoning (reminds me of my family), organic Heinz ketchup (good on everything), Thai sweet chili sauce (Trader Joe’s makes me buy things I don’t need); all relics of a time when my diet was varied beyond pasta, eggs, apples, coffee and whatever was free at work.

Ramen is always a staple.

I daydream of people who have had food stamps and it’s fashioned this urban creative utopia in my imagination where government benefits are entirely accessible to lots of folks. Take some of my friends, for instance: “I was touring the country and recording queer cabaret music in Columbus and have been getting $200 a month for a couple years!” or “I was a poor psychology undergrad in Seattle, told my sob story at the office, and got $150 per month ‘til I graduated!” or “I was a freelance fashion stylist in Brooklyn and I immediately qualified for expedited processing, like, just last week! I get $125 a month now.”

The news even validated these stories, articles popping up all over the Times and Salon and Good. Even strangers at the grocery store down the block or the bodega outside work, whipping that beautiful little plastic card out and eating something. Anything.

These people affirmed that my needs were real and made everything seem so possible. All I had to do was prove how poor I truly was and I would get to eat decent food again -- regardless of my age, gender, race and other pre-existing social baggage.

Because of these people, I thought food stamps were a shoe-in for me. So I took the fall.

And I somehow got rejected for my part-time-freelancer-patch-work income being too high.

I applied for food stamps on January 31. I had a phone interview on February 3. I had my in-office follow up, verification, and finger imaging on February 9.

Did you know that there’s no eating or drinking permitted in the food stamp office? My number was called and a surly lady scanned some paystubs and other paperwork into the system. Then I was told to wait 30-45 business days for my answer, and that it “seemed like I qualified” but not for emergency processing.

This was hard to hear, because I’d been barely scraping by for quite a while, and it most certainly felt like an emergency after festering in that waiting room for three and a half hours. I was handed a Brooklyn food bank resources packet and sent on my way.

The sad state of my fridge.

Ambling out of the office, without a clue as to what to do next, I found myself choking back tears on the elevator. A middle-aged Guyanese woman (I know that accent anywhere) put her hand on my shoulder and empathized that “Everyone here is going through a hard time. All you can do now is pray.” This was meant to console, of course, but it just made my sad secular self cry harder. Because I knew that she was right. I was done and it was officially out of my hands.

The next week, in the thick of waiting on the official word and strategizing a piece on the topic for Brokelyn, xoJane published “Notes from the Food Stamp Office” -– a first-person article about a single mom who got 'em with relative ease. Her story inspired me and gave me more hope and made me feel okay about having an iPhone.

On March 2, after adequate struggle and panicked mailbox pillaging, I was formally rejected from food stamp benefits. Evidently student loans don't "count" in this process and my income is too high without taking said loans into consideration.

The rejection affects me in a lot of ways (like, not eating food sometimes), but especially from the aforementioned perspective (see paragraph one). I have enough self-awareness to accept my privilege (having gone to college and being currently employed, to say the least) and understand that my cultural norms and ideas about poverty are different than someone else’s. I may be in a stint of poverty, rather than lifelong cycles, but who is to know how long the “stint” may be for the duration of paying my loans on time -- aka the next 8-10 years. I could stop paying, I guess, but I won’t.

This might sound weird to the average naysayer, but throughout the entire food stamp attempt, process, and subsequent rejection, shame was never a part of the picture. I don’t feel guilty about this at all. I think we are all entitled to food, and that might be an idealized anti-capitalist glossing over, but I really truly believe that. We’re talking about a basic human right.

Despite the many directions this conversation could head, and all the tangents I could continue to go on, I am left here still with a nagging “Why me?” feeling.

Every discussion of food stamps is met by the immediate need to justify. Assure you that I’m working, disclose my upbringing and my financial present, describe what I’m eating, and of course, strategize how I intend to use the benefits if they were granted.

In short: the obligation to share that I’m mindful and that I’m trying. Put some morality in it. The fact that I even need to prove this to you in order to speak of these struggles says a lot about who is supposed to be poor. Fashion that person in your mind right now. Do it.

Some people are just plain poor. Some people are required to explain it.

I didn’t grow up poor, but I am now. So now what? What do I get out of not telling you about this? What do you get after insinuating that I haven’t tried hard enough? You’re being dismissive, and we’re back to square one. It’s like that Good Magazine article that came out a little while back. “The fact is, we can no longer tell someone’s financial reality by what they eat, how they dress, and where they grew up.”

I am going to take a really disturbing radical stance here and say that my poverty isn’t a result of poor choices. It isn’t from a lack of effort. I have no regrets. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.

And the deeper truth is that I’m having an easier time being okay with my poorness than I am being okay with this opinion. So I’m left here in Brooklyn with $12 until Friday, living out a cliché and continuing to work my ass off.

My story doesn’t end like Elizabeth’s. It ends exactly where it started, with a bowl of ramen and a weary (but mostly honest) smile.