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.
BUT...it 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.