The social services building in Glendale is crowded today. People are sitting and standing, waiting for their number to be called. Despite the crowd it is eerily quiet. No one speaks to each other, we individually look over our filled out forms lying in our laps. Toddlers wriggle in their mother’s laps, and some families talk in subdued and muffled tones. Besides one crying baby, the loudest noise is the whir of printers and office electronics. The air is one of universal resignation.
After two long hours, my number is called. I bring my paperwork to a woman behind a plexiglass division, slipping it under the glass, like at the bank.
“Why did you take a number?” she says.
Not quite understanding, I reply. “The sign said to take a number. so I.”
“No, no, no,” She says. “Go get that envelope over there, put your name on it and drop it in the box!”
“I’m sorry, but I just want to talk to someone about applying for foodstamps,” I reply again in bewilderment.
She looks at me with absolute frustration, like a mother telling her toddler to stop banging pots together. She repeats her instructions more slowly this time, emphasizing each word. She directs me outside, and waves me away to attend to the next person waiting.
I pull an envelope from the pile in the counter. I look around for the sign I must have missed. I can only find the very large take a number sign I saw when I first came through the metal detectors on my way in.
I walk around outside for 20 minutes before a security guard points me to a large beige mailbox down the street that is not visible from the front of the building. As I slide my application in, I wonder if I should even bother. I think about my empty bank account and let the envelope drop in.
According to Federal figures from 2007, only 48 percent of eligible Californians are enrolled in the Federal Food Stamp Program, recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Los Angeles County alone is estimated to have 957,162 eligible people who are not participating in the program. The non-profit that addresses this major discrepancy, California Food Advocates, lists stigma, lack of knowledge about eligibility, and inadequate benefits as the major barriers to participation.
In their estimation, it takes an average of five hours in the welfare office and almost three trips to apply for food stamps in California. From my experience, and those of people I talked to standing outside Glendale’s Department of Public Social Services building, it seems to most people the average benefit of $146 a month isn’t worth the application process, or keeping up with the continual paperwork. But there is an additional exasperating barrier, the confusing, inefficient bureaucratic tangle of applying for, and staying on, food stamps.
As I was standing outside the office wondering where my Friday had gone, I met others who shared my feeling of defeat. Stories of mixed messages, and wasted time. Always repeating that it didn’t seem worth the meager allotment, but when things are tough you’ve got to do anything to try and make it work. No one was willing to go on record about their experiences, either because of embarrassment or a kind of irrational fear of rocking the boat and losing the benefits they do receive.
As he walked away one older man said, “don’t get me wrong, it drives me crazy to come and waste time here, but I need this. As soon as I can afford not to do this anymore I won’t.” I asked him to clarify, and when he says “when I can afford not to do this anymore,” he doesn’t mean when he isn’t eligible anymore. He means when he “can get a hundred bucks more a month anywhere, anyhow.”
Some “American ideal” cheerleaders insist on throwing up the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” banner and letting it fly, saying this is how assistance should be. But I disagree. If people well below the poverty line who qualify for help are being discouraged from seeking it, who are these programs for? For those too beaten and desperate to have a choice in the matter?
According to the DPSS these programs are “designed to both alleviate hardship and promote health, personal responsibility, and economic independence,” it seems their idea of promoting independence is to make it so frustrating and horrible an experience that you either don’t finish applying, or stop the efforts to stay enrolled in the program. Taking the poorest, most vulnerable populations and subjecting them to hoop-jumping and humiliation is not a strategy, it’s a shame.
Outside that building, I heard stories of being sent cancellation notices, and being told to ignore them. Of being sent to do workfare and being sent to a wrong location twenty miles away from the actual site. Of resubmitting forms that have already been submitted three times over. Of feeling overwhelmed and lost in amaze like system with no way to address any of it except to file more forms, to get in line. Of these many storytellers, of various ages and backgrounds, not one was willing to put their name in print. It is a deeply flawed system that does not get fixed because those at its mercy are not empowered to speak up against it. It is here stigma rears it’s most ugly head.
A week after my trip to the Glendale DPSS I received a letter in the mail telling me I missed the appointment I had with my caseworker. The alleged appointment time on the letter was scheduled for the day I turned in my form, before I had applied. I called the number on the form and spoke to my caseworker. She told me to ignore the letter. We go through my papers over the phone. I now have an appointment for the following week, Tuesday at noon. On Monday I receive a letter informing me I failed to submit the proper papers, and my application has been rejected. I think about my empty bank account and my empty fridge and sigh.