Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Welfare, American Style

On my current budget, it would be impractical for me to buy many of the foods that I like to eat, such as fruits and vegetables. I consequently applied for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance, or “food stamps,” as the program once was called (and as everyone still calls it). If Ayn Rand believes that this makes me undeserving of love, so be it.

My nearest benefits center is in Coney Island. The area has a strange still to it this time of year, likely exacerbated by the lingering, spectral presence of Hurricane Sandy. Inside the building, the walls are painted off-white, with a mauve color rising like a cheerful water-stain about three feet off the floor. Triangles of this mauve paint have peeled, exposing the sad concrete walls underneath.

Those seeking benefits are an extraordinarily diverse lot. When glancing at their faces, I can’t help wondering about their respective countries of origin, and which regimes they survived.

She must have survived Mao. He somehow endured Stalin. That shawled woman with the waddling child might have fled Assad…

I have also noticed that a significant number of the workers at the benefits center appear incapable of smiling, empathizing or betraying any other sign of their presumed humanity. Those with Russian or Western-African accents are usually beneficent; it is, unfortunately, my fellow Americans who tend to treat people the worst. This rude, apathetic and, in some cases, abusive treatment is the inevitable result of my country’s individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mindset. Often, when someone in need of assistance points out some procedural injustice in their case, those in the position to help instead respond by repeating themselves, only louder and more slowly: e.g., “YOU NEED TO HAVE AN EMPLOYMENT VERIFICATION FORM.” Vitriol fills their eyes as they speak. You would think they were dealing with an infamous paedophile from a television news story.

Perhaps apathy and suspicion are meant to safeguard against benefits fraud, even if the grounds for these suspicions are largely stereotypical and not reflected in actual fact:

I requested a fair hearing trial after my initial application for food stamps… er, “Supplemental Nutritional Assistance” was rejected. However, the date on which this was scheduled clashed with a dentist appointment (Medicaid was surprisingly easier to attain: I first assumed that the price of the program would make acceptance a novelty, but then I realized that, as a publicly-funded health care program, it’s probably cheaper than private care…). I asked if I could reschedule the date of my hearing. I could not. What should I do?

“You’ll have to decide which is most important to you,” said the woman at the desk, with a strange smile ticking-up the corners of her mouth.

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