Upper White Trash: The Joy of Food Stamps


(Editor’s note: this dispatch is from a middle-aged, college-educated Manhattan resident who has given the hell up and gone on welfare. Some weeks back he described the process of signing up for the dole.)

Despite all the waiting and the hassle of dealing with a bureaucracy, the one bright spot of Public Assistance is getting food stamps (also known as EBT). They’re now given in credit card form. In the old days you used a coupon to pay for items, which could be a bit humiliating, since it made your poverty public. But now you swipe a card like a credit card. No muss, no fuss, and your ego stays intact.

You rarely hear about food stamps as a gateway to the good life, but culinarily speaking, that’s how it worked for me. The key is no kids! I’ve come to the conclusion that the main delineation between the classes is not race or education (though these play a role), but who has kids. An insane amount of recipients of public assistance are single parents, mostly moms, sometimes with multiples of kids. I’m not interested in passing judgments on their behavior, but thank God it ain’t me! Selfish or not, it allows me to use my food stamps to indulge my taste for good food, including shrimp, lamb chops, and imported cheese. I need staples too, but eggs and milk are not quite as important to me as to a growing kid.

And I doubt kids have such exotic tastes as mine: a small Vietnamese grocery on Grand Street accepts food stamps, which means fish sauce, duck’s tongues, and black rice vinegar.

Food stamps can be used for any uncooked or cold items. You can’t buy the ready-made soup at Whole Foods, but you can buy stuff from the salad bar, cause it’s cold, I guess, which may be why I’ve also been allowed cooked shrimp.

It’s also interesting who takes EBT: Whole Foods, Food Emporium, Trader Joe’s, and Fairway do, but Balducci’s, Citarella’s, and Gourmet Garage don’t. Many small Korean stores and the like take them as well, a sign of the times I think.

The main thing to be careful of is not exhausting your food stamps before the next payment. It’s quite exhilirating to fill your cart with anything that tempts you on the Feds’ dime, and choose deluxe items (Domestic mascarpone? Imported suits me better), but it does need to last the month. I confess I’ve yet to work it out perfectly, but I am new to this life, and as with anything there is a learning curve.

Still, the thrill of having the Government buy my baby octupus, Van Leeuwen ice cream (try the pistachio, the best I’ve ever eaten), and creme fraiche is a thrill I’ll miss when this ends.

If food stamps are the upside, the downside is all the hoops you have to jump through if you want more than just food stamps: Cash assistance means you must meet Back to Work stipulations, which is why welfare is now called “workfare.” Though many blame Reagan, it was our first black president, Bill Clinton, who instituted the change. And a fun bunch of hoops this is. First, you’re assigned to a program, sub-contracted by the city, that’s supposed to assist you in your search for a job. You have to show up for this as if it were a job, five days a week.

I was sent to something called the MATCH (Moving Ahead Toward Career Horizons) Program at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis building. Basically, I sat at a computer and searched the web for work — something I could do on my own, but I guess they want to make sure you’re doing it, and they monitor the computers tightly to make suer you’re not futzing around on Facebook or the like. The jobs the staff offered were what you might expect: cashiers, retail, security guard. The chances of them finding me a writing or photography job were, I reasoned, just about nil.

One of the problems here was overcrowding. There were two computer labs, one small (about 15 machines), one moderate-sized (30 computers), but so many people are unemployed at the moment that many new arrivals could not be accomodated with a computer, and were left to sit in a conference room, twiddling their thumbs.

Also, after about two weeks, you’re supposed to be assigned a work place to go to, mostly city agencies that need free help (well, not quite free, but considering how low the cash assistance is for a single adult, close to free). I was told that if I didn’t want to do janitorial stuff, I could file, and was sent to the Department of the Elderly to do that. I got there within the scheduled time frame, but they only had about 100 openings, and close to 400 people showed up. We were ushered into a room, waited about an hour, then told to sign a paper saying we had arrived late. I thought of arguing about this — I got there when they told me to — but figured, what’s the point? So I signed.

The harried social worker told us we’d get rescheduling info in the mail — and there, as they say, my troubles began.

Next: My workfare hearing.