Lunch in Tribeca with a friend and former colleague, an Ivy Leaguer who still has his media job. He looks at me over the comfort food that he will very kindly expense and asks, casually: “So are you eligible for food stamps?”
I think he is joking. Then I realize he isn’t.
“No! Of course not.” I pause. “Wait, am I?”
I can’t remember that last time I was so taken aback by a question—much less confronted with big questions about identity, need, and most of all, my own prejudices.
It’s one thing to be on unemployment. Yes, when I first lost my job, I hesitated to file for benefits. Maybe in part because I’m a grandchild of hard-working immigrants, it seemed like a comedown, an admission that I wasn’t capable of earning my own way. I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting on line at some grim state office, my severance papers stuffed into the pocket of my Searle coat, waiting to be given my check.
But I knew lots of other laid-off yuppies, all of whom talked matter-of-factly about collecting unemployment. I’d paid into the system just for this kind of situation. And, as it turns out, you can file online, without setting foot inside the bureaucracy. So I began collecting—and openly discussing it. When the jobless rate is ticking over 8 percent and more than 5 million other Americans are also claiming benefits, it’s hard to feel like the loser.
But food stamps felt like a whole different game. First, could I actually qualify, with two master’s degrees, an expensive sofa, and a Roth IRA (albeit sorely reduced)? And should I? I’m far from starving—wouldn’t I be wrongly siphoning resources away from truly needy people? And finally—and most powerfully—would it mean that I had become one of those people?
Because, I realized for the first time, that’s how I thought of them—as people different from me. I might believe firmly in the social safety net, but I had to admit that I also considered myself superior to anyone who might need that net. I am ashamed (privately, until now) of the words that ran through my head: Welfare mothers. Drug addicts.
Turns out, deep down I actually thought I was smarter, better educated, more emotionally stable, less addiction-prone, more resourceful—instead of just luckier. You might, too.
Many Americans may be confronting similar feelings these days. Last week it was reported that a record 31.8 million people are now on food stamps—or, as it’s now called, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). It’s upsetting to lose your job, your title, your office. I don’t know what it is like to lose your home. But considering food stamps gave me a whiff of how devastating it can be to feel like you’re losing your “rightful” rung on the socio-economic ladder.
Still, my ever-pragmatic mother opined, “If you can get it, take it. That’s why you pay taxes.” And I thought, well, SNAP sounds sort of like TARP, and nobody seems to have a problem taking that. So one day not so long ago, I did a Google search. I nervously went so far as to complete the first stage of the “Am I Eligible?” questionnaire on New York City’s benefits website, which revealed that my household “may be” eligible for a range of programs, from food stamps to a Veterans’ Exemption to free school lunches. To find out more, I’d have to provide additional information.
And that is where I stopped, unwilling to go any farther. Am I impractical? Mom would say so. Buying into a social stigma? Yes. A snob? Very likely. As someone who loves to eat, there are a lot of things I’ll swallow. But pride, it turns out, isn’t one of them.