in Language, Politics and Other Words

“Food Stamp Recipients”

I listened to last week's State of the Union speech
and smiled when Obama reminded the Congress that
"Food Stamp Recipients Did Not Cause the Financial Crisis."
I remember my own ups and downs with Food Stamps from 2008 - 2013.
The downest down was perhaps in March 2012, a confession and an insult
at the Food Stamp Office, recalled in The Lexigraphy of Entitltement.

From a letter to my brother, March 28, 2012

Today I went to the Food Stamp office. That’s not all that I did. I also planted seeds and in the backyard, and made a cold-frame glazed with old dry-cleaner bags… I went to the Food Stamp office to inquire as to why my benefits were not renewed. I sat in the waiting room on the 5th floor.

At last I saw an agent. “How can I help you?” she asked, intoning that she had no interest at all in helping me and this was merely a formality, one of the small lies that add up to the big lies. She looked me up in her database. “Your case is still pending. You are going to receive a letter notifying you on the decision on your case.” End of story…

But… but… “But what can I do?” This plea began a circular conversation that kept returning to her position, that is “there is nothing you can do. Your case is pending and you must wait for a letter.”

But… but… “Ma’am, it is more than 45 days since I applied. You and I both know that if I’m waiting for a letter then it will say that I am denied. And it will say that I am denied because there is some piece of paperwork that is missing. Is there anyway to find out what to do? What is missing? So that I will not be denied?”

“No, sir, I do not have access to that information.” End of story.

But… but… “Please ma’am. I am dumpster diving right now.”


“That’s where you go to the dumpsters at Whole Foods and pick through the garbage bags.”

“Sir, if you are in need, I am going to give you a list of Food Pantries that can assist you.” End of story. But…. No buts! End of story. No buts.

But… then she went to the photocopier, and the situation changed. Another client, sitting at the cubicle next to me, said to his worker, a heavy-set church-lady-type, “You know he’s lying, dontcha?” His case worker nodded “mm-hmm” in the disdainful agreement of the saved.

This man had shamed me. As if all the bureaucrats in this room and the very architecture of the building itself didn’t shame us all collectively, this man had taken it upon himself to shame me as an individual. This was not acceptable.

I turned and asked: “Sir, did you just call me a liar?” He looked up. He looked at me. I was looking at him.

“Whazzat?” he asked. We were two poor men, both hungry and insecure. We were poor Americans, which meant that we were relatively wealthy as far as the total human population is concerned. We each wore different signs of our relative wealth – he wore gold jewlery, I enunciated.

“Did you just insinuate that I was lying to my worker?”

Neither of us stood up. Would the police come if we did? We were two poor men, in the Food Stamp office at DeKalb Avenue, sitting in chairs in facing cubicles, almost ready to fight.

Both of our hearts were pumping with that excitement before a fight. If he had stood up, I would have bitten his fucking ear off. I had decided that would be my action. No argument. No punches. No wrestling. Bite his fucking ear off.

“Sir. I do not know you. You do not know me. Certainly I was not talking about you.” We calmed down and turned away from each other, two poor men waiting for pronouncements from two church ladies.

My case worker, who had been waiting by the photocopier for the adrenaline to clear out, returned with a list of food pantries and added, “I’m going to get a supervisor who can open your case.”

The supervisor came in, bespectacled and friendly.“How can I help you?” I said that I was told that I was “waiting for a letter” but since it is more than 45 days, I know that the letter will be a denial of benefits based on some missing paperwork. Yet, I had brought everything required on my last visit and no one told me there was anything wrong with my documents.

“Well, let’s look into it.” And he logged into his presumably supervisor level of the database. Indeed, on March 24th my case was reviewed and found “unverified.” My case had been closed. End of story.

But… but… The supervisor gave me a quick interview. And, indeed, I had provided everything required on Feb 28th. One letter was rejected because there was no telephone number on it. He said that he would have my case re-opened for 30 days, and told me what letters to bring.

Two weeks later. I brought the required letters. I was still denied as “unverified,” which is another way of calling me a liar. I never received a letter telling me so. Maybe the supervisor was afraid I would bite his ear off?

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