Monday, November 1, 2010

stamps I

In celebration of moving to a new place, in honor of recent events involving my checkbook, and in light of my October 26th post, I headed to the local food stamps office this morning.

9:40 am After checking in at work, picking up a book (good idea), shedding an extra jacket (bad idea), and grabbing my lunch (also a bad idea), I set off on the three-block walk I've often described to my clients to the Human Resources Administration office.

9:44 am I arrive, to see a line out the door and halfway down the street. I get in the queue and think about the irony of making people seeking help with food and healthcare stand outside in the cold (it felt like 31 degrees) to get it. I remind myself that I wanted the experience, and brace myself for some genuine participant observation. I also think about how much I'm going to wish I had kept that extra layer on.

9:59 am My section of the line is finally let inside, where I continue to stand on line (NY for "standing in line") for a good hour, reading my book and eavesdropping on my neighbors talking about why they won't be voting tomorrow ("you know they throw out half the ballots anyway") and the various failings of the HRA office.

10:03 am (Okay, so from here on the times are approximate, because by this point I've realized this just might not be the super-impressive traumatic-but-revealing participant observation experience I was expecting when I arrived.) I get to the receptionist, who gives me a green sheet of paper and tells me to take the elevators to the fourth floor and wait until my number is called.

10:04 am As I head for the elevators, a security guard stops me and says I can't bring food, and I must "go back around the corner and leave it in the 2nd office". The directions make no sense, and eventually another guard takes pity on me, and sends me to the elevators another way, under strict instructions not to open my lunch.

10:13 I arrive at the food stamps part of the office with the number 1049. There are no numbers on the signboard. No one has been called yet (the office has been open since 8:30). It feels like an airport because we're watching CNN sitting in cheap plastic seats waiting to hear magic words on the PA system.

10:34 The first number - 1030, is finally called. CNN is showing videos of one of it's anchors dancing.

11:46 My number is finally called. I go up to the counter where the receptionist gives my application a preliminary going-through. "Uh-oh, we have a problem", she says when she sees my income (which puts me over 130% of the poverty line, and thus makes single-no-dependents-non-disabled-not-elderly me ineligible). This is my cue. I whip out my copy of the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and a USDA opinion from 2001 which states that the AmeriCorps living allowance not be considered income when determining eligibility for need-based federal assistance programs.

She reads my document (dated in 2007) and asks me if I have anything more recent, because "our regulations are always changing". Umm...they're your regulations, right? She tells my case worker to go ahead and do the interview, and that they will "investigate" and see if my income really is excluded.

11:48 My interview starts. My case worker is an African-American man in his 40s. His desk is covered in piles of papers. He asks questions about my jobs, my living situation, my bank accounts. After awhile he sends me down the hall to be finger-imaged.

12:26 Finger-imaging = finger printing. It's one of the more controversial and most unnecessary parts of the food stamps application -- it doesn't cut down on fraud and makes applying for government benefits feel criminal. It's required for every New Yorker over 18 receiving food stamps (so I've had clients whose whole families are ineligible for food stamps because 19-year-old son who still lives with mom can't be bothered to go down to the office).

12:45 Back to my case worker. He goes over a few more things, tells me I'll hear back in one to thirty days, and, as an afterthought, prints me a receipt, which he "should do anyway", but apparently doesn't do often. I get him to put down his name and phone number too, so I can get in touch with him directly if I have problems with my case or disagree with his decision.

So, in summary: it wasn't as bad as I expected. I've heard plenty of stories of hostile, belligerent, harassed case workers and overwrought applicants, and I didn't see that. It was a busy day and I still not only turned in my application but also had my interview and was out within 3.5 hours. certainly was not as good as it could have been. I was at the DMV a month ago and can't help comparing the two experiences with local bureaucracy. The DMV was fully equipped for long lines. The staff were equally busy and impersonal, but the communication was clearer and the customer service more professional. The building was much cleaner and more comfortable.

And thus my food stamps case was born.

Also, now taking guesses as to how long it will take me to hear back in the comments section of this post.


  1. 1. Be careful with your premature "this wasn't so bad." It has potential to get much much worse.
    2. Thank your stars you're not in San Diego (renownd nation-wide as the worst food stamp distributor in the nation).
    This is why:
    I didn't get them, because San Diego has decided they are allowed to disregard the Americorps Income Doesn't Count Letter and because I had some savings- but my co-worker (Hope) did get them, becuase we were at not paid over the poverty line. It was the worst thing I've ever seen. She repeatedly got letters telling her they had over paid her and she owed them money, or they underpaid her and they owed her money. One week she got three DIFFERENT letters in the SAME envelope - one stated they had over paid her, one stated they had under paid her, and one stated that she neither owed or was owed money. All in the same envelope.
    In the end she was only able to get out of paying them $400 out of pocket because we worked in social services and knew someone on the inside who could get someone to actually review her case and figure it out (her case worker never called her back once the entire time). She ended up paying $35 out of pocket and had to keep her food stamp account open so they could repay themselves by taking the full amount of it each month for the over payment. if she'd closed it (which she desprately wanted to) she would have owed $200 out of pocket. As a result she continued to get conflicting letters about it until we moved.
    Meanwhile this same thing was happening to our refugee clients who didn't speak English, much less know anyone on the inside...

    Good luck taming the beast!

  2.'s Nevada for you:

    In Las Vegas, 9 hours at the food stamp office will get you $16 a month (if you're lucky) because LV fails to distinguish between Vista members and National/State Members (apparently). If you are unlucky, you will wait for 9 hours and then be told you are missing certification forms from employers and landlords (despite copies of your lease and paystubs).

    If you were fortunate enough to apply for food stamps in Vegas and then move to Reno and re-apply (Reno, as it happens, has their social service act together), then you will not only be awarded $200/mo as an Americorps member but be back tracked that amount to your Vegas application date. Nice, yes, but a little excessive for most of the Americorps members I worked with who spent the better part of six months in Reno trying to cheat the state out of the $1000+ of food stamps money they had on balance. It all made me a little sick, to be honest, because it kept much needed money from families while well-to do Americorps members were literally pocketing cash.

    That being said, I did eventually get on food stamps in Reno and decided to use it mostly at the local food co-op and at Whole Foods for some tasty healthy foods. Food stamps at Whole Foods is a whole separate post, I believe.

  3. A good one for food stamps got automatically re-approved because I lived in a flood zone in the month of July. Thus, I am currently eligible for food stamps until May without having to complete a 6 month re-interview. Which will be interesting, seeing that when I finish americorps in a month, my income will double. Nevertheless, since my caseworker is impossible to reach, I guarantee it will take at least 3 months to cancel my food stamps.