Last week I went to a government services building in Coney Island, Brooklyn, to apply for food stamps. By the time I left the subway the rain had begun to fall, but I did get to walk past the famous Cyclone roller coaster along the way.
The building smelled like a nursing home, but I forged ahead and told the security guard I had an appointment. She said to find a seat, which was hard -- the large 'waiting room' with several rows of seats was nearly standing room only. A few people had a book or a newspaper to read during their wait, as I did, and a few others spoke quietly to the person next to them. But the majority just sat there, grim-faced, staring into space. I listened to the older woman next to me hum quietly to herself as I read my book ("The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand, who definitely did not believe in food stamps). Every so often the security guard would come to the front of the room and ask, "Does anyone speak Russian and English?" and ask them to translate something for an applicant who had just walked in.
An hour after my scheduled appointment time, I was finally called in by a blondish woman with a Russian accent. I followed her into a maze of cubicles and sat down across from her. I showed her my proof I was receiving unemployment benefits, and she looked at the receipt for my nearly $1,000 a month rent, but she didn't look at the electric or gas bills. She sighed a few times as she entered my information into her computer. "I don't think you'll qualify," she said apologetically. "I'll say you're getting $405 a week in unemployment instead of $430" (you can do that?' I thought) "because $430 a week is too much."
She typed away at her computer, moving through various screens. Finally she said, "Do you want to be fingerprinted now, or do you want to see if you qualify first?"
I was taken aback. I didn't know you needed to get fingerprinted for food stamps. "Um, I'll see if I qualify first," I said.
She went through a few more screens, hit the magic button -- and sighed again, shaking her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "Your income is too high."
"Even taking my rent into account?" I asked hopefully.
She said, "We only count that if you're under the limit, but you're over." Which doesn't make sense to me (shouldn't it be the opposite?), but rules are rules.
But then I felt guilty because she seemed to feel so bad for me! She went on about how unfair it was that I didn't qualify. "If I make the rules, you would qualify. But when they make the law, they don't ask me," she said. "People like you who work should get. Not the lazy people who don't work!"
"Oh, that's all right," I said quickly, trying simultaneously to reassure her and stop her rant. "I knew I probably wouldn't get them, but I just thought I'd try."
"Well, I don't wish this on you, but if, God forbid, your unemployment runs out before you find a job, I hope you know you can come back to us," she said.
I thanked her profusely and left, thinking, If, God forbid, I don't find a job before my unemployment runs out in October, $200 a month in food stamps isn't going to cut it. Note to self: do some shopping for the St. Bart's food pantry this week. If I had to live solely off unemployment benefits, I would be one of its clients.
The New York Times actually ran an article on Sunday by Jason DeParle entitled "The Safety Net: For Victims of Recession, Patchwork State Aid," about how piecemeal the social services safety net is in this country, and how so much of the aid you can get depends on the state in which you live (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/us/10safetynet.html?em).
In other news, I'll have to send my resume much farther and wider for a teaching job than I have been. I was only applying for jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and not at first-year schools (since they haven't had a chance to iron out the kinks yet). But that was before I went to the NYC Public Schools web site last night, where they have a big notice posted about a hiring freeze for the upcoming schoolyear. The only exceptions are specific shortage areas (like bilingual special ed -- if only I were bilingual!); schools that have been in operation less than 3 years; and "high need" schools (which is probably code for scary schools with metal detectors). The New York Times also ran an article about it, in today's paper (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/nyregion/11teachers.html?em).
Maybe it's a good thing I have a friend in the food stamp office. ;O