A Citizen in Doubt

I go to the Food Stamps Office because during my phone interview they told me I qualify.

The office is located up on a hill away from downtown near the other Social Services offices for our county. I park in the dusty gravel lot and glance hesitatingly at the rectangular, bland building. It has a door on each side and lacks any landscaping. The doors are all black and uninviting and they are mostly unmarked. I have to poke around the entire building in order to find an unlocked door. Sheltering my eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun off the cream-colored vinyl siding, I enter the building and am immediately under dim florescent lights.

“Can I help you?” a large secretary wearing black jeans and gold earrings asks me.

“I’m here to apply for Food Stamps,” I say, louder than I’d like to. Immediately I am filled with shame and nervousness. I own an iPod. I own a car. I have the privelage to choose graduate education. What the hell do I deserve federal handouts for?

“Name, date, Social Security Number,” she says, pointing to respective lines on the page. “I have to play a video for you about how to use your card, then you’ll meet your caseworker.” Caseworker. I pee in a bucket. I heat my house with wood. I receive no benefits from my jobs. I work in the service of others. I have no hot water in my house. I share a phone line with two other people and two computers, all in separate buildings. My parents make dirt for money because they believe in world peace and gave up their high paying jobs to dedicate themselves to positive change. I still owe for my undergrad education. I am unwilling to incur credit card debt. I have trouble paying my bills since my work is seasonal. The voices of insecurity and determination battle it out in my brain.

I sit down with the clipboard in hand and the secretary waddles out from behind her cubicle in the direction of the waiting room. She strains to reach a stack of VHS tapes on top of a dusty, wall-mounted VCR. “Sit back and relax.”

For a moment a wonder how difficult this must be for some people. I imagine a Hispanic woman trying to fill out a form in English while at the same time being instructed to watch a video, which is also in English. Out of obligation to the secretary I pay close attention to the video, which only further highlights the ridiculous of my presence in this office. You don’t deserve this money.

The video tells me to store my Food Stamps card in my wallet.
It tells me I should pretend that my Food Stamps card is as valuable as money.
It instructs me not to put my Food Stamps card in the dishwasher.
It tells me not to throw my Food Stamps card in the trashcan.

Shame turns to humiliation, then a bit to anger at “the land of the free” which can’t even insure or educate a vast percentage of its own population.

Just then a Hispanic woman in her thirties with three children and one on the way walks in the door. She seems to be a regular, just stopping in to pick something up. Very few words are exchanged between she and the secretary. Her young son skips around the waiting room and speaks en espanol to the gumball machine. Then big sister comes and pulls a coin out of her pocket. She wears pin-striped children’s pants and a baggy sweatshirt and smiles warmly at me.

”Rojo y blanco, hmmm,” she pouts at the gumballs in her hand then hands the red one to her brother. He gobbles and gobbles and chews as hard as he can, but the gumball is so big that he begins to drool on himself. He could care less but his mother wipes at the boy’s face, then gives him another coin.

My name is called and I exit the waiting room to traverse a narrow hallway with dingy linoleum floor. My caseworker is a tall, red-haired woman with a round face and blue eyes. She has freckles across her cheeks and down her forearms. Her office is undecorated and the mini-blinds on the single, small window are dusty and bent. On the wall hang three framed awards for “100% error rate.” The awards have been printed using ClipArt by her manager and are shoddily framed. I consider for a moment that “100% error rate” is a pretty negative way of saying my caseworker fills out all her paperwork correctly. (Why not “100% success rate”?)

Before she can begin, I explode with concern: “Look. I don’t know what poverty is. I work part time by choice and because this county can only pay a certified teacher with a Bachelor’s degree $8 an hour and I’m paying off undergrad loans with $30,000 more on the way, I made this appointment…”

She turns her head up from my application and looks at me firmly, then raises her eyebrows a little bit.

“I don’t want to take resources from anyone that needs them more than me. If I get Food Stamps does that mean that someone else will go without?” By now the caseworker is sitting completely erect in her chair, but her eyes soften a little and I can tell that she understands what I’m getting at.

“It’s a Federal program, not a county or state one. If you qualify, you qualirfy and that’s that. Everyone in our county who applies and qualifies will get money regardless of your application.” She is easy on me. But she’s also telling me I don’t need to worry. “And judging by your paperwork, you’re in the lowest income bracket and you most certainly qualify.”

We go through a series of questions. I have to give her directions to my house if there is a random check. I have to tell her about my freelancing. I have to tell her that both of my jobs are seasonal and hourly and none offer benefits for part time. I have to tell her I own my car. I have to tell her how much is in my checking account and how much is in my savings. I am still nervous but calming down a little bit and then…

“And do you have an IRA?” she asks, holding her pen instinctively over the box for NO, ready to check it off quickly and move down the list.

“Yes,” I say slowly.

She pauses, looks up, then sighs.

She explains that an IRA is considered “resources.” In order to qualify I have to have under $2,000 in my “savings and other resources.”

In other words, because I planned for my future and started an IRA when I had extra money and a full-time salaried job with benefits, I am now unable to receive Federal assistance even though I have no intent of taking the money out.

I leave a bit unnerved, strangely relieved, slightly sad, rather unpatriotic, and mostly confused. I am trying to follow my dream. I am trying to write. I am trying to save money for my own retirement. I am trying to set up some sort of base so that I may raise a family if I want to. I am trying to educate myself and contribute to my country. And apparently I am too privelaged. Too smart. A little too preplanned. Not poor enough.

So I will pay my health insurance premiums to a corporate system that robs a vast percentage of U.S. Citizens, including most people’s grandparents. I will pay my taxes that buy bullets to bloody men, women, and children that my country says are terrorists. I will pump gas into my car like the American Way, while Shell Oil murders Union organizers in Nigeria. I will incur student loans so that I may become a more educated, “valuable” citizen for my country even though they won’t grant me a penny for my merit. I will teach future generations in the classroom with gentleness, an open heart, and solid-rock teaching skills.

And I will not be granted Food Stamps.

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