For weeks, I had been considering applying for food stamps. In doing so, many thoughts swirled in my mind causing me to question some of my core political and cultural beliefs. You see, 1) I’m educated. I just finished a master’s degree in December. 2) I don’t have children 3) I’m white. For these three reasons, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that I needed food stamps in the first place and that I would be receiving them out of Uncle Sam’s pocket without directly working for them. I felt that because I had grown up and experienced the benefits of white privilege, I shouldn’t need to use the system when others may need it more. I come from a blue-collar family. My parents never went to college, but worked hard and were fortunate enough not to lose their factory jobs through several economic downturns. And while I’ve been working since I was 14, I have also been able to go to college, travel and live abroad, and then move to New York City in order to pursue a profession I feel passionate about. I’m lucky and grateful. And more than anything I want to give back instead of take from.
But as we all know, these are extremely difficult economic times. I got a temporary job for the month of January, but that ended and my phone still isn’t ringing. It’s New York City, where competition is always fierce, but right now opportunities are scarcer than ever. I’m too old to be asking my parents for any more financial help. So here I am, living off the last of my student loan money and unemployed in New York City, where the Daily News recently reported that New Yorkers on food stamps hit an all-time high: 3 million across the state, with nearly 2 million of those cases in New York City.
So when I first starting contemplating getting food assistance, I floated the idea by some of my friends, also college educated, and they kept saying things like “I’m sure something will come along.” But when I ran the idea by a few people I came across who had not finished college, they wondered why I was even contemplating the thought. Each group’s reactions reinforced the stereotypes and stigmas related to receiving public assistance. But I knew that this was an indication of a larger systemic problem, a great misunderstanding between the lower and middle classes in this country who are too often pitted against each other by the powerfully wealthy. I have long believed that if people need help, then it’s the obligation of a government to provide resources through a social safety net to assist them in getting back on their feet, and that people should not feel or be made to feel ashamed for their circumstances. Now that person in need is me.
It’s now been over three weeks since I applied for food assistance and I have yet to hear back about my qualification status. I have gone on some job interviews in the meantime and am hoping that even when I get that letter, it will no longer matter what it says.
Contributed by Stephanie Hakes
Of the Human Services Council of NYC