Tag Archives: Food Stamps

Harlem’s Extreme Version of The Welfare State

I met “Danny” and “Keisha” in the Jackie Robinson Park at 145th and Bradhurst, in Harlem, where they were hanging out with Keisha’s four year old daughter, and their nephew, who is two, on their day off from work. Danny works in demolition, Keisha is a dental tech in a dental office in Manhattan. To my surprise, they agreed to talk with me, though both were adamant: “No names, no pictures, no videos!”.

Danny is a tall, lanky, energetic young man, dressed in typical ghetto gear; baggy pants showing boxers, baseball hat on backwards, white undershirt, tattoos, chained wallet – who spent much of the visit alternating between chasing Keisha’s daughter through the playground equipment and sitting and telling stories.

He is gregarious and sassy, in marked contrast to his girlfriend, who is quiet, polite, and sits still as stone on the park bench beside me, considering each answer with care, and seldom showing much emotion beyond a gentle smile. In their early twenties, they both graduated from local high schools and have lived in Harlem their whole lives, though Danny has done some traveling and is interested in the idea of moving elsewhere. Keisha is Harlem through and through, loves New York, has only been across the river to New Jersey a few times – other than that, she has spent her life here in Harlem, and has no interest in moving.

Asked about welfare, they give me the same response I have heard many places this summer – first they say they only get food stamps. Then, they mention that the kids get free meals at school. Then they mention that they have the free cell phones they get for qualifying for welfare. Then they say, “Oh, yeah, I have the Medicaid card”, and then finally, yes, they do live in subsidized housing as a matter of fact.

I can’t tell if it is willful lying, or just a lack of understanding that all these programs are part of a vast entitlement system that subsidizes their entire lives, from cradle to grave. I certainly find myself wondering how many people don’t really consider any of these programs welfare programs. Indeed, Danny and Keisha think they are entitled to them in the true sense of the word entitled: to “Give (someone) a legal right or a just claim to receive or do something.” When asked about each program, their reply is “Well, I need it, I can’t do it on my own, so New York needs to take care of me.” They don’t have any concept of the difference between federal and state and local programs, though they do understand that there is quite a bit of overlap, and some ‘needs’ are met by overlapping offices (housing, for example, can be provided through either HUD (federal) housing vouchers, or through programs provided by the city of New York).

Once we started talking about fraud and abuse in the system, things really got interesting, and this is when I realized that  New Yorkers really do master everything they do, whether it is money making on Wall Street or money taking in the ghetto (though some might argue that both are ‘takings’).  Whereas elsewhere in the country food stamp recipients sell their food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar, here in New York food stamp recipients go to grocery stores, find people with full grocery carts, and negotiate what the buyer will pay for the food stamps, usually seventy cents on the dollar. As Danny said “You a FOOL if you’re paying full price for groceries, lady, when you can get instant 30% off just by using someone’s food stamps! Why would you do that? You stupid?”… Why would I do that? Food for thought!

As for health care, whereas in other parts of the country people hide income and assets to get on medicaid and medicare, here in New York people just pay medicaid card holders to borrow their ID cards, and go to the doctor with other people’s cards, so one medicaid account might be covering medical care for several people. Housing? Well, here in New York people rent out their HUD subsidized housing and take the money and go live elsewhere, in nicer neighborhoods.

You almost feel a grudging respect for these New Yorkers, who have taken gaming the system to the nth degree. I mean, frankly, you have to admire their gumption, right? But  given the population of New York City (eight million people and climbing) and the number of people involved, the cost of their creativity comes at a shockingly high cost to us all.

Fed on Food Stamps

I ran in to “Kenneth” on the sidewalk outside a strip mall on the outskirts of Atlanta, taking a break from his job as a cook and server at a small restaurant. Affable and easygoing, we started chatting and he mentioned that he has been on food stamps for years.

Kenneth’s monthly food stamp allotment of $200 doesn’t carry his appetite to the end of the month, so he supplements by working in the food service industry so he can get at least one meal a day at work. This also helps him get more nutritional food into his diet, because as he readily admits, when he goes shopping he goes for calories over nutrition, the ubiquitous ramen noodles taking center stage.

Kenneth tells a story of receiving a cash gift from his aunts at Christmastime, and how the cash, used to pay utility bills, was seen as ‘income’ by his case worker, and caused him to lose food stamp benefits. Because of rigid asset tests to qualify for benefits, gifts like this one can cause more trouble than they are worth, and pose a real dilemma – accept the one-time gift from a well meaning friend or relative and risk being bumped from welfare programs, or refuse the gift and slip deeper into poverty.

In what is becoming one of the grand memes of this journey, I found myself contemplating how we have come to have able bodied, willing workers who can only afford to feed themselves by going on the dole. Kenneth doesn’t want to rely on food stamps – what he does want is a job with a living wage, which despite his best efforts he has been unable to find.

When asked what he thinks of the food stamp system, he said ‘it is great in theory’. This can be said of many of the welfare programs we have today – they are all great in theory – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and healing the destitute are all noble causes.

But does that mean we should we be thankful regardless of the fact that we do a poor job of it,  or should we be wondering how the programs got so big, so pervasive and so wasteful, and start trying to get people back on the road to self sufficiency again instead? I think it is a valid question.




Disabled, Giving Back

I was visiting a food bank in DeKalb County, Georgia when I met “Jane”. At first I mistook her for a client – she was watching me out of the corner of her eye, and kept hanging around the edges of the conversation I was having with the director of the program.

As I left she caught up with me and asked if she could share her story. In her former life she was a figure skater, teacher and judge, and also worked as a japanese translator. She owned  her own home and car, and enjoyed a typical middle class life. Then one day she was bit by a tick and developed Lyme disease.

During the process of being diagnosed she tried desperately to find her birth mother, in order to get detailed family medical history that might help with her diagnosis. Though she was ultimately successful, it was a laborious and costly process she believes should be streamlined in case of medical need.

Her health has steadily declined, to the point where she has now lost most of what she had, and is living on SSDI. She has a service dog who can sense when she is going to have seizures, providing her with safety, piece of mind, and companionship. The costs of the service animal are covered by SSDI.

Jane finds living on disability and food stamps humiliating and demoralizing. She has come to terms with her disease, but it is doubtful she will ever come to terms with how she is treated, whether it is at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. Because here disability is invisible, people assume she is gaming the system, and treat her accordingly. She often has to defend her right to use a service animal; people see only a woman with a dog, not a disabled person with a lifesaving service companion.

Despite all the setbacks in her life, though, Jane has found ways to stay busy, volunteering a considerable number of hours every week at food banks, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, just as she did when she was affluent. Though she is frustrated by the fraud and abuse she sees every day, she continues to volunteer because it inspires her to get up and out of the house, and she feels good when she helps those who are legitimately in need.

This attitude, and approach, to charity, I found most pronounced in the South, where I kept meeting people who were very active in their charitable giving, be it in their churches, their schools, or in non-profits serving various causes. Churches especially  do a remarkable job of coordinating charitable activities, including providing food, shelter, housing and social services.

Part of this journey has included the inevitable discussions about how to replace the welfare ‘state’. Some argue that the poor, mothers and children, and the disabled, will fall in to abject poverty, but having seen the vast network of private charity at work nationwide, I dispute that notion.

After all, when welfare appeared on the scene, replacing private charity with government-provided care, charity didn’t disappear. I wonder what would happen if welfare programs were reduced dramatically and communities returned to taking care of their own. Certainly the likes of Jane lead me to believe Americans would pitch in and take care of each other, regardless of their status in life.

“They Keep You In Poverty – Where They Want You”

“Brittany” and her father, both unemployed, are currently living in an extended stay hotel in Georgia; rent is paid in part by Brittany’s boyfriend Drew, and partly by whatever odd jobs Brittany can scrounge up on Craigslist and other job posting sites. She also works occasional day labor on a construction site.

Brittany’s story starts when she was thrown out of high school for taking the fall for a fellow classmate who brought a weapon to school. She developed agoraphobia and became housebound. Not only were her benefits cut off when she didn’t show up personally to renew her food stamp benefits, she and her father were told they had to repay the previous month’s benefits because they hadn’t renewed. She has been without food assistance since, and is afraid to re-apply because they don’t have the $300 to pay back the California debt.

Now twenty, with her agoraphobia under control, Brittany and her father have relocated to Georgia to be closer to her boyfriend, Drew. the two met online,  in a role playing game (RPG), and are now trying to make a life for themselves, starting with this move. Her father used to be a machinist and mechanic, but a series of injuries and an allergic reaction to industrial chemicals have left him out of the full time labor force for years.

Brittany recently tried to sign up for benefits in Georgia, through the state and then through United Way, which has a contract to process welfare applications using contracted ‘case managers’. The biggest shock came when the case manager told her the best thing she could do is become homeless, get rid of everything, live on the streets for six months, and then come in and apply. The message: any success would count against her, and help is only available once you have hit absolute bottom.

Brittany is a bright, thoughtful and articulate young woman who has given a lot of thought to the reasons welfare programs fail, and she is also very realistic about what happens to people who end up trapped within them. As determined as she obviously is, we find ourselves convinced that she will find success and work her way out of poverty, and yet even she admits that her odds are slim.

Is this the best we can do? Here is a young woman whose whole life lies ahead of her – young, ambitious, bright, and hardworking, it is hard to understand how it makes any sense to put obstacles in her path and drag her into further poverty. Better to reach out and give her a hand up so she can take care of herself and her ailing father. She knows what that hand looks like – it’s the hand of an employer welcoming her aboard, not the hand of a social worker.