March 29, 2010
Not a hipster on food stamps….
I’m a little late on a response to this, from Salon.com last week. I did participate a bit in the comments section there, but it riled me enough that I couldn’t really articulate a full response–my feelings about it have been fairly volatile.
Basically, Salon did an article entitled “Hipsters on Food Stamps,” with the tag line “They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?” and what could’ve been an insightful piece on a group that we don’t normally think of as using food stamps–the young, childless, highly educated intellectual/creative class–now finding themselves turning to them, or about the fact that it’s actually possible to eat decently on a limited budget, got turned into an article practically guaranteed not to shed enlightenment but to elicit reflexive outrage at entitled young “hipsters” using government handouts to buy luxury foods.
One of the subjects of the first article wrote a response about how he was portrayed in an unnecessarily frivolous manner, and some of the real issues he’s dealing with, which is more than worth reading.
My friend Steven wrote a very personal response today, so I figured I’d better get my act together, but what really elicits the following is a commonality of anger and indignation I’m hearing from both family members and friends–some of whom may be reading, and I hope they’ll comment–at people who use public assistance and the low-income: presumed beneficiaries of things like the health care bill, benefits that were part of the stimulus package, and a more progressive tax code this year. “The government just makes it too easy for people to not do what they’re supposed to do,” my mother said. A fairly common refrain from a friend with whom I debate often is “At what point are people ever going to be allowed to fail without the government to step in and save them?” I’ve heard more than once that I wouldn’t be so supportive of Obama, or progressive taxes generally, if I made more money, and a whole lot of consternation over the threat of policies which “take money away from people who work and give it to those who don’t.”
The first misapprehension to get out of the way is that we do in fact take a lot of money from people who work and just give it those who don’t. We don’t. You can’t be an able-bodied adult and just decide you don’t want to work, and live off of public assistance. Almost every available program has some kind of work hours or placement requirement.
Secondly, there seems to be a perception that the poor have it easy, or that we’re poor only because we don’t work hard enough, or enjoy being able to take advantage of government money. So let me share some personal experience:
I applied for food stamps once. I was in my stage management internship, on a stipend of something like $216 per week after taxes, if memory serves. I.e. $864/month. I actually tried to survive on that for a few weeks, tightly rationing 3 meals a day, no snacks…and then I was just too hungry. My stomach hurt all the time. I couldn’t think. I sold a toaster on Craigslist for $10 to do my laundry one week. So I went to apply for food stamps. It was a horrible, degrading experience which I do not wish to repeat.
I certainly wasn’t ashamed nor did I feel undeserving of them–I was after all working for very little–even my hyper-conservative, solidly anti-social safety net Republican father said “You’ve paid taxes; it’s just YOUR money.” Still, I felt…strange, out of place, going to the food stamps office. Like a well-educated, ambitious person like me shouldn’t need this, or someone who’s voluntarily gone to work in the arts has made their own bed and shouldn’t have the nerve to ask for help.
But if you weren’t ashamed to begin with, they’d make you ashamed. In the waiting room of the food stamps office we were treated like criminals. Very stupid criminals. Appointments were running 3 hours behind schedule and we literally were not allowed to ask any questions about why, or what was going on, or if we might reschedule. The room was windowless and I had a claustrophobia-induced panic attack. I finally saw a social services worker, who talked to me like I was a dimwitted child who’d done something bad. I was crying by that point.
I got denied for not providing a FULL bank statement, which was just a level of intrusiveness that I couldn’t deal with, so I never even got to the stage where you have to be fingerprinted. I didn’t bother to appeal; the initial experience had been tiring and depressing enough.
It’s not easy being poor; it’s hard, and it’s not only those who don’t want to work hard enough, or didn’t bother to get an education, or had children too young, who wind up poor. Sometimes, it’s people like me. Especially now.
I don’t consider myself a hipster; I’m nowhere near cool enough, to start with. I still qualify for food stamps based on income, though I’m sure many people, including some friends, would think that I don’t deserve them: I’m single, childless, relatively healthy and knowingly entered a low-paying artistic profession. And while usually I say that I’d have to be much more desperate than I am to repeat the first experience I had…sometimes lately I wonder if it would actually be the more responsible thing to do to go apply again. I’d be able to look out for my health better. I’d be able to save more money and pay down my remaining credit card balances faster (which I ran up mainly with groceries), and food stamps are a good deal for everyone: they return, last I heard, $1.71 to the economy for every government dollar spent. So every person on food stamps is actually helping the economy and their neighborhood, especially if they spend them on locally grown food, more than they would by struggling nobly and unnecessarily.
My point, I suppose, and the unintended lesson of the pair of Salon articles, is that it’s easy to condemn with superficial information. But reality on an individual basis is much more complicated.