On food stamps

Posted on: May 28, 2017

When my position at Harvard was eliminated I was eligible for unemployment. Now, I know that, as a former Harvard employee and liberal intellectual elite, no one wants to hear my opinion on welfare or other government services since I don’t know how real people live. But, having collected both unemployment and, briefly, food stamps, I have a few opinions on the newly released Republican budget and its planned gutting of the food stamp program.

First, saying my position was “eliminated” is a bit of an overstatement. It was from the outset a term position, and though it had the possibility of being renewed at the end of the year, that was certainly no guarantee. I was still taken by surprise, of course – it’s difficult to believe that an institution as august as Harvard (which I still lovingly refer to as “the center of the universe”) would not be interested in retaining the lack of ambition and general know-it-all attitude I bring to my work. But in the year that I was there, the Harvard Libraries implemented digital book plates, and therefore no longer needed someone to spend 17.5 hours a week gluing physical plates to the front inside cover of new books.

(Yes. That was my job at Harvard. People are often very impressed when they hear I worked at Harvard, forgetting that even Harvard – the center of the universe – has entry-level work that needs to be done.)

Despite working only 17.5 hours a week and having been there only for a year, I’d been a fully benefited employee. I got health insurance through Harvard, and tuition reimbursement for graduate-level classes that would help advance my career, even though that advancement would not happen at Harvard. And so, when my position ended as scheduled, I was qualified to collect unemployment.

I am sure there was an option to register for these benefits online, but I registered by phone. When I called, I spoke with a woman whose name I don’t remember. In fact, I remember almost nothing about her except that in addition to unemployment payments, she automatically signed me up for food stamps. This, she explained, was because the approval process for food stamps could take several weeks; if it turned out I did need them, it would be better if I did not go without them during the approval process.

That is not actually the reason I started writing this post. It did not stand out to me as at all remarkable at the time because of course the priority would be ensuring that hungry people did not go without food during the lengthy approval process. Of course the very purpose of these systems is to make sure that people in need do not, even temporarily, fall through the cracks. And of course this unnamed and probably underpaid public servant would immediately send me a SNAP card; she was just doing her job.

I don’t to this day know if her actions were unusual or not. I do wish I could remember her name though, because I have a feeling that, in addition to being a dedicated and hard-working public servant, she is a god-damned American hero for making that effort on my behalf.

Food stamps were different than I expected. First, there were no actual stamps; instead, I received what was basically a pre-paid debit card, which I could swipe in a card reader just like any other card. It couldn’t be used for certain prepared foods, but other than selecting ‘SNAP’ on the pin pad at the register, I did not have to declare to anyone at the store that I was receiving government assistance.

Second, and I cannot state this strongly enough, I loved getting food stamps. LOVED IT. I feel like I saw a lot of ‘very special episodes’ back in the ‘80s where a family was offered food stamps, but ultimately turned them down because they were too proud. Gimme a Break, maybe, or possibly Just the 10 of Us? Like, there’d be a scene where the cute kid would roll in this giant wheel of government cheese and everyone would be super excited at the bounty of food they’d received, but eventually, by the end of the episode, the dad – that dumb killjoy – would decide that the family, his family, didn’t need charity, they’d buckle down and sacrifice and pull through. Food stamps are fine for some people, of course, but better his family of precocious children should go hungry than his pride suffer, seemed to be the message.

That message, of course, is bullshit; food stamps are the best. Because not having a job is obviously extremely stressful, and food stamps help alleviate some of that stress. They are a net good. I mean, think about it: you get to eat without having to spend money on food! It is amazing. And that means the money you would have spent on food can be spent on something else. Like an internet connection so you can search for and apply to jobs. Or laundry detergent so that if you do have an interview you can show up in clean clothes. Or, you know, rent and other basic necessities of life that are not food, for reasons that should be obvious.

So I was very happy to receive food stamps. And I imagine that there are some you reading this who, because you know me, are coming up with reasons why I am different than what you imagine to be the ‘normal’ recipient of food stamps. Before expressing those reasons, I would encourage you to consider instead how those people are like me: they are former coworkers, former classmates, friends of a friend someone met one time at a party who post a lot of cat pictures on social media; who have fallen on hard times and need a bit of assistance. And if their need is more long-term than mine turned out to be, well, that certainly is unfortunate, but I would suggest that the tragedy of that situation is not that you are in a position to be of assistance.

Because, it turned out that, as much as I loved them, I did not actually qualify for food stamps. Fortunately, I lived within walking distance of a very inexpensive grocery store, so I bought what I could and made a lot of soup during those months while job searching. (I also listened to a lot of This American Life while cooking, which is neither here nor there, but I think it’s important to take every opportunity to mention that Ira Glass occasionally gets on my nerves.) So I got by without food stamps. But, it should be noted that I also was not supporting anyone other than myself during that time.

Because, like  many benefits for the unemployed – transportation assistance and child care – these are reserved for people who truly need them, and most often that means families. Families, obviously, with children. And this, of course, is why we must strenuously oppose the new Republican budget that takes so much money from the food stamp program. Because cutting funding from the food stamps program will only result in hungry children. That’s really all it will do; I don’t know why anyone would be in favor of that.

I do understand that there are some people who don’t want their tax dollars supporting people who sponge off the system. It is important to note that the majority of welfare recipients are actually like me – they receive assistance temporarily, while looking for jobs. Through those jobs, they pay taxes, which means that, far from sponges, they are active contributors to the very benefits they receive.

On the other hand, there are unfortunately always going to be people who will game the system. These cuts will not prevent anyone who is so inclined from taking advantage of what’s left of these programs even if they don’t need them. The sad truth is that there will always be bad actors, but I defer to the aforementioned god-damned American hero in believing that the priority should be ensuring assistance is available to those in need.

I would also point out that nowhere in the budget proposal is there a tax cut for you; cutting funds from food stamps will lead to hungry children, but it will put no more money in your pocket, no more food on your table.

Instead, your money will go toward a drastic increase in defense spending. Which is a difficult thing to take issue with, it would seem, particularly in these times of increasing violence and the ever-present threat of terrorists. And I understand that – the world is a scary place, and it seems like we should be doing everything possible to defend ourselves. But it is worth taking a look at what we are willing to sacrifice in our rush toward security; if we are willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of children, what then, are we actually working to preserve? If we as a nation are targeting our own children – or, worse, identifying some children as “other” so we can target them – what does that make us?


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