Thursday, June 07, 2007

Food Stamps

I ran across a link to the Food Stamp challenge the other day and it made me remember the time I was on food stamps. Luckily, I've only ever experienced what my father calls "self-imposed" poverty. That's the poverty of students, non-profit workers and federal employees (ha ha) who have significant family resources behind them. I don't have a trust fund, but I'm definitely privileged--we're solidly (upper) middle-class. I've always had the good fortune to know that if I ever fell into financial straights, my parents would bail me out. That's still the case, but these days, I have the resources to bail them out too, if necessary.

My parents supported me financially during college and a little beyond. (I always had a part-time job, but they wanted me to save money, which I did. I didn't have a credit card or a car during college, which went a long way towards not spending money.) After I graduated from college and had a steady job, my allowance stopped (I don't remember having a conversation about it with my parents, but we must have). After graduating, I paid my own way, but the folks bailed me out to the tune of a few hundred dollars here and there over the years. (I paid for graduate school, but sometimes Dad gave me money for health insurance.) Before I moved for grad school, I got the perks of living in the same town as my mother: free laundry if I trucked it to her place, dinner and movies on her when we went out, home cooked meals, occasional care packages, sick visits, and new socks and underwear on demand. While I made enough money to pay for food, rent and the basics, Mom still helped me in small ways until I left Seattle--and a little after I left too.

A year and a half after I graduated, I got a job as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). I stayed in Seattle and worked for the YWCA. I used to describe VISTA as a domestic Peace Corps, which I believe was the intention behind its founding. During the Clinton years (after my time), it was re-packaged as AmeriCorp. (Aside: I could write a whole post on the VISTA orientation, let alone the overall experience. A highlight was the bit in the orientation handbook about "a thousand points of light." Ugh.)

VISTA volunteers earn a stipend, not a salary. The stipend is less than minimum wage. There's a philosophical reason behind the low pay--VISTAs are supposed to be poor. VISTAs work with the poor (though direct service is prohibited) and should experience poverty. But, like Dad says, self-imposed poverty is not the same. It's not really poverty when your parents buy you a car (only $1,300--but still) or cover the cost of your long distance calls to them.

On my very low VISTA pay, I barely qualified for food stamps. Amazing that you could make approximately $8,000/year and BARELY qualify. I thought it would be smart to apply. Not only because I could use the extra money, but because actually getting food stamps is not something most middle-income people ever do. I was supposed to be poor and this was part of the experience.

I made an appointment at the local welfare office. Ironically, it was in a location that would have been fantastically hard to get to if I didn't own a car. I also had to take almost the whole day off work because the appointment was in the middle of the day. I had to bring my pay stubs, bank statements and tax forms to demonstrate that I wasn't too rich and didn't have too many assets. My only assets were the car and a few hundred dollars in my savings account. My caseworker barely spoke English so the interview was a bit challenging. I believe she came from Russia and I always wondered if they assigned me to her because I have a Russian last name (Barab is Russian, but so is my non-pseudonymous last name). I got through the interview and was told I'd receive $50/month in food stamps.

Using the food stamps was a little embarrassing at first, but the grocery store people never made a fuss and it was fine. These days, benefits come on a card, like an ATM card, but back then the food stamps were paper--like heavy-duty monopoly money. Cool, in a way, but a bit humiliating in practice. Also non-transferable. Food stamps can only be used for food, and only certain types of food (no prepared foods), so purchases had to be made in a combination of cash/check (for the toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste) and food stamps for the rest. It was awkward but manageable. I'd sometimes make food stamp-only runs to avoid the hassle.

Because I was on the margin of being eligible, I had to send in a form and copies of my pay stubs every month. After six months, I'd have to re-certify, which meant another visit to the office, another day off from work, and another assessment of my banking records. Just shy of the six-month mark, I had a month in which I received three checks. I sent in copies of all three pay stubs. Shortly thereafter, I got a letter telling me my income was too high and I would no longer receive food stamps. I was furious. I called and explained that I was earning a salary and just because my monthly pay was higher than usual, my annual income hadn't changed. The response? "You were going to have to re-certify next month anyway, so why are you complaining?" Nice.

I was so discouraged. I thought, "This system encourages people to cheat." Because I was honest and sent all three pay stubs, I was punished. If I'd only sent two, no one would have noticed. I seriously debated re-certifying. I didn't want to go back and deal with all the paperwork and the dour caseworker. Eventually, I concluded that if I were involuntarily poor, I would have to go back. This was part of the deal--being poor means fewer choices. I went back and got another six months of food stamps. I was sincerely trying to live within my means, but supporting even one person (and a car) on $8,000 a year was not easy. I still had Mom if I needed her and thank goodness for that.

Interestingly, after VISTA ended, I had no steady job and even less money. It never occurred to me once during that time to reapply. Since then, I've either had too much income to quality or been a student--and in many places, full time students aren't eligible (I understand why, but what about full-time students who are actually poor???)--so I've never gotten food stamps again. While I fully support the program, I'm glad I've never had to use it again. I know I'm not just lucky, but I am grateful.

Grateful for: plenty to eat.

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