Months ago, when I first moved into my cozy new home, I was sharing the stoop with a couple friends. Drinking beers and smoking, we discussed the many intricacies of living in New York. As the newcomer, I was mostly listening.
“You should apply for food stamps,” a 20-something in a trucker cap and skinny jeans recommended.
“Yeah, it’s like free money! Apparently they’ll give them to anyone now,” someone interjected from behind Buddy Holly frames.
I filed those thoughts in the back of my mind, confident that my job search would bear fruit. It did — although it took it’s time — and that conversation was forgotten. After all, most of us would avoid the indignity of a government safety net if at all possible. Sometimes we just don’t have a choice.
As some of you may have heard, I’ve recently joined the horde of unemployed in America. Walking home from my last day of work (a whopping 1.47 hours), I passed by my local branch of welfare offices. Thinking that I would be able to file unemployment at this location, I strode in. I was wrong. Thinking quickly on my feet as the curt receptionist swivel-chaired away, I decided to make the most of my visit and apply for food stamps. After all, what else did I pay taxes the first half of the year for?
On the Department of Labor’s website, it’s clearly stated that in order to receive food stamps, one must be working at least 20 hours a week. If you were to ask somebody who actually used food stamps, you’d hear almost the opposite: if you make over a certain amount, you won’t get anything. Over the seven hours I spent in that building, I learned practically nothing about the program. All the informative pamphlets offered helpful suggestions like, “If you are in danger of being evicted, you may qualify for money to pay back rent.” I may qualify? One thing I did learn is that the “may qualify” part hinges largely on your randomly-assigned case worker.
After six hours of strange smells, fluorescent lights, screaming children and screaming adults, I was called over by Mr. B, a thin and soft-spoken man with a thick accent and a navy blue suit. I sat down next to his desk and watched him do things very quickly to a very outdated computer. There were many pages of forms for him to fill out, most of which involved things about my life that he certainly couldn’t have known without asking me, but most of the time those boxes got filled right in without my help. Mr. B managed to net me about $300 a month in food stamps, only knowing whether I was employed, the information on my license and how long I had lived in New York (although he may have asked me that to be conversational). I was then shuttled down to another floor to find the “finger imaging” department (“It’s on the left.”). I gratefully stooped to the most dribbly and lukewarm water fountain in existence, then stepped in. I got a mug shot and scanned images of my fingerprints, for reasons unknown to me, and hit the water fountain again on my way back to Mr. B.
One thing I didn’t know from my online research is that everybody in the program gets a MetroCard just for asking. Another thing they didn’t tell me on the website is the mandatory participation in the “Back to Work” program. In exchange for that sweet, filthy government lucre and the gratuitous MetroCard I am now spending eight hours every weekday with other welfare recipients learning how to polish my resume and what “business attire” means. As useful as that may seem, most of the time is spent on bureaucratic make-work. Attendance for the 30-or-so people is taken, usually over the course of an hour or two. On my way to the bathroom, I walked by at least three billboards covered in job postings, with nobody willing to answer where I might be able to apply for them. That tantalizing glimpse of gainful employment opportunities would be the most frustrating part of the experience if all of the conversations I heard didn’t range from difficult-to-hear to straight-out aggressive:
“Can everybody please remove their hats?” asked the orientation leader.
“Why you gonna tell me to take off my hat? Why you stand up there all big and tell me what I can and cannot have on my head? How dare her? What she gonna do about it?” inquired one hat-wearer, before storming out of the room (an act that actually gets your case closed and starts the application process over again).
During an aptitude test, somebody leaned over and asked me to identify a symbol in a math problem. “That’s long division,” I said, although she seemed even more confused. The next guy over couldn’t finish the test in time. That may have been because his phone rang exactly every 80 seconds until the proctor literally screamed at him to turn it off. In school growing up, you wouldn’t do that because the teacher would confiscate it or send you to “the office.” Here in grown-up land, you can coast by doing almost anything as long as you have all your paperwork, documents and referrals in order. It seems impossible until you see it happen.
In fact, this whole week has been a trip beyond the mirror. I am completely immersed in a system I never even knew existed a week ago, and I’ve experienced bureaucracy so thick and mindless it makes Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil seem like a utopian vision of the future. All of this is just to buy groceries, too. I can’t even imagine the hoops required for Section 8 housing, Medicare and child support programs. I also can’t imagine how those hipsters who gave me the idea all those months ago felt about it. I’m sure it was a challenge to pull out the EBT card at their local Trader Joe’s — in front of all those people. My greatest challenge this week? Not sweating all the way through my business attire.