Commentary: My shame and pride in signing up for the most stigmatized benefit
By Christopher Cook
KALW- Local Public Radio, 91.7 FM
The Labor department announced today that weekly unemployment claims nationwide have dropped by 5,000, and the national unemployment rate is now 8.3 percent – the lowest in 4 years. In California, the jobless rate stands at 10.9 percent, down from 12.1 percent a year ago.
Christopher Cook is a San Francisco journalist and author who has written for Harper’s, The Economist, Mother Jones and The Christian Science Monitor. He recently wrote “The pride and shame of joining food stamp nation,” for Salon.com. This January, Christopher joined the 46 million-plus Americans getting food stamps to help make ends meet. He shares his thoughts on that decision in this commentary.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: My benefits counselor is a sturdy Indian man who speaks like a machine gun. He leads me to a numbered booth in a long row of numbered booths. I take my seat across from him.
“ID? Social Security card?”
I hand him a stack of materials proving it’s me sitting here.
He asks me, rat-a-tat-tat, “Unemployed? Self-employed? How much per month?”
“I’m self-employed,” I tell him, “Pay is very inconsistent. $750 or $800 a month.”
“You have pay stubs?
I show him a few check receipts from a folder. Four hundred and fifty dollars here, $100 there… Welcome to the writer’s life in America today.
“How much are your bills?”
I tally them up: $770 a month for rent, $40 for cell phone, $25 for utilities. That’s over $800 right there.
He looks at me quizzically. “How are you surviving? Your rent is higher than your income?”
Savings, I tell him. For the past few years, as a mid-career journalist and author, I’ve buttressed my $15,000 or less a year with some money my grandmother left me. All told, I live on about $20,000 – not much for big city living. I work my butt off 40 hours a week, yet that little nest egg is almost gone.
I’m hardly alone: According to the USDA, 46.3 million Americans depend on food stamps to survive – it’s a historic high, due to recession and population growth.
Roughly one in six Americans does not have reliable access to food – one in five children. Nearly half the country is poor or low-income. The vast underbelly of America is, economically and nutritionally, underfed.
I call myself frayed white collar – part of the privileged poor. I have a college degree, a career and an economic rainbow of middle-class, working-class and more privileged friends. Most of us are hard-pressed; my teacher friends make about $60,000 a year, but they’re perpetually broke, eking across each month’s finish line thanks to credit cards.
The caseworker thrusts some papers in front of me. “Sign.” I do.
“Getting unemployment now?” he asks. “Been on food stamps before?”
“No, no unemployment,” I tell him. As a freelancer, I don’t qualify. “This is my first time on food stamps. Except for when I was a kid.”
He checks a few boxes, and with that, I’m certified for 12 months of benefits.
I grew up on food stamps. In the 1980s, while Ronald Reagan was attacking “Welfare Queens,” my single mother and I relied on food stamps for years, even when she worked at a health food store in Boston. We muddled through with her poverty wages, food stamp booklets, and, sometimes, slightly bruised but edible produce the store couldn’t sell.
I don’t recall feeling ashamed about being poor. Those food stamp coupons seemed like Monopoly play money, and they kept us going. But now I’m 44, single, nobody to feed other than myself, and as the caseworker signs the final papers, I feel defeated. How have I fallen back to where I was when I was a food stamp, Head Start kid – getting, yes, free lunches?
I never bought the American narrative of progress and opportunity, yet somehow I feel like a flunkie for not holding up my end of the bargain.
With my “Golden State Advantage” benefits card in hand, I move quickly from shame to guilt. Why? I pay taxes, even if not very much on my poverty-level income – Nearly the same rate as America’s multimillionaires. Oh yes, of course, this is bootstraps America, land of free capitalistic opportunity.
But public assistance has always carried the puritanical stink of stigma – as if the rich never got a helping hand from their families, their often-inherited privileges.
The fact is, these benefits keep people alive. They keep people eating, and they keep others working by propping up food purchases.
Food stamps are not the problem, nor are they the solution. They are a life raft that barely keeps people afloat, while America’s corporations and the rich siphon profits away from the public treasury and avoid taxes and blame the poor for living off virtually nothing.
I fit that latter profile, trying to survive as a San Francisco journalist; trying to survive in America’s new economy, along with 46 million other hungry people.