What I Realized When I Finally Decided to Sign Up for Food Stamps
Photo Credit: Channel 4 News; Screenshot / YouTube.com
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I have previously written how three days before my 60th birthday I came to a decision that I once considered unthinkable. On that day, I gathered up my financial information, took my book, entered the Social Services office in Waterbury, Connecticut, and asked if there was someone I could see to obtain some assistance. I pretty much already knew for what I was eligible, and had known for the past year, but since I was self employed I needed help to complete the forms that are designed for those on an hourly pay. I needed to talk to someone.
The receptionist behind the glass partition took my name and social security number and directed me to the waiting room informing me someone would call me. I had gotten there at around 11:30 a.m. and took the last of the available seats, opened my book and steeled myself for a long wait.
There were over 50 people in the waiting room. Mothers with children some with infants, middle age couples, young men and woman by themselves, some in work clothing -- guard uniforms, medical scrubs, fast food outfits, business suit or tie. This was not what I had expected.
The Social Services department is directly on a bus route and not located in the best part of town. I am ashamed to say that I expected to find the unemployable or the lazy or the addicted or handicapped. I expected something different, something else. I expected to be surrounded by... by "them."
I pride myself on not succumbing to prejudice so it was with a wash of embarrassment and shame that I realized that "them" were in fact me. The people in that waiting room could have been my neighbors or co-workers. They were people I interact with every day. One of them I recognized as an ex-employee of one of my clients who is now out of business. These were not the dregs of society looking for a handout. These were working people, just like me, who just needed some help. This was a shocking reminder of what has become of the middle class.
I was the last person to sign in so as names were called, I did a mental calculation and knew I would be there for several hours. Three hours later a lightly graying woman, still younger than I, with a light but professional demeanor, showed me to a clean, well organized cubical and asked how she could help. She made conversation easy as I reluctantly explained my situation, answered her questions and presented my documentation. The forms were completed, printed and signed and the lengthiest part of the process was making copies of my documents. Because as anyone who has worked in an office knows, there is never enough paper in the copy machine and the refills are always kept on the other side of the building. An observation we both joked about.
She explained what I qualified for. That I was eligible for $178 a month in SNAP benefits, the maximum for a single household, and that once I supplied a bank statement of my monthly mortgage amount she could process the paperwork. It was the one document I neglected to bring. She then told me that if there were funds still available I would most likely qualify for the state energy assistance program but would need to apply at a different state office. (The funds had already been used.) She also offered me a flyer, appropriately titled "Help for People in Need," that listed contact information about 17 other programs and organizations from the United Way to school breakfasts to food banks.