Like thousands of other single women living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Brigette, 24, collects Medicaid and food stamps. Unlike most of her neighbors, she’s white and a college graduate—the kind of welfare recipient rarely considered in debates over public assistance.
Brigette, whose parents and two sisters run a restaurant in rural Vermont, got her B.A. in film from Bard College, a top-tier liberal arts school in upstate New York. She moved to New York City about two years ago to pursue experimental filmmaking. As young self-styled bohemians have always done, she found a neighborhood with cheap rent and cobbled together a living from various gigs—in her case, waitressing and assisting more established filmmakers. The idea was to leave time for her own projects.
But then, two and a half months ago, she lost the job at the diner. Her two film posts together pay just $140 a week, and her rent is $600 a month, so things got lean quickly. Brigette was also missing payments on her $17,000 in student loans; she is now over $1,000 in arrears.
“I was really hungry—no food in my house, no money to buy food, my pants were all falling off, and I was like, something’s not working out here,” she says. “Then I got this raging ear infection.” With no health insurance, Brigette went to the emergency room and later applied for Medicaid to cover her bills. “I figured as long as I’m applying for this, I should go across the street and apply for food stamps.” After a six-hour wait at the office on Thornton Street, Brigette was awarded $147 a month, which she spends at her local C-Town supermarket on beans, rice, greens, and peanut butter. She went on to apply for Safety Net Assistance, New York’s cash-grant program for childless adults, but discovered it involved a mandatory job-training program. Now she’s looking for another 15-hour-a-week job.
Brigette is telling everyone she knows about the great new way for starving artists to survive in the city. Her (white) upstairs neighbor just got food stamps, and a friend who is a musician, hatmaker, and babysitter has been accepted onto the rolls as well. Applying for aid was “the best thing I ever did,” she says.
Slumming it is a venerable New York City tradition for emerging artists. But the idea of using welfare to support a long period of youthful exploration is not part of reality for the typical young Bushwick resident.
Brenda Batista, 18, has lived in this neighborhood since she came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at the age of eight. She and her grandmother are both on public assistance, like about one-fifth of the people in her City Council district, but Brenda doesn’t think it’s all that. “I don’t really like it, but it’s a help and we got to do what we have to do. I feel bad because sometimes they give me a hard time when I go to the welfare office.” Brenda also doesn’t like the work-first attitude legislated by welfare reform—the welfare office tried to hire her. “They told me that I should go to school at night and work for them in the day, but I told them I wasn’t going to do it. I’m only 18 and I want to finish my education.”
Brenda, a high school graduate, is now at Boricua College working toward her B.A. and, with luck, her master’s in social work. If she makes it all the way, she will join the 2 percent of Hispanic women in this country who attain an advanced degree. Merely graduating from high school makes her a rarity in her neighborhood and a minority among welfare recipients in New York State. “My college is across the street from the welfare office, so it kind of reminds me of where I could be,” she says. Brenda is also active in her community, serving on the board of the advocacy group Make the Road by Walking. She has ambitions for her community as well as herself.
“Bushwick, about two years ago, three years ago, it was only 1 percent white, and now in the empty places where we’d like to have parks, they’re building new houses we can’t even afford. White people are moving in because we have the train to Manhattan and it’s cheaper. It’s already overcrowded and they’re just adding to the chaos in the street. I think they should build houses for the people who live here.”
Brenda doesn’t hold anything against the people coming in; she just doesn’t understand why people with other choices would want to move to a place with roaches and peeling paint. To her, poverty is not exotic, and struggle doesn’t need to be simulated.