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I'm on Food Stamps: My Shame and Pride in Signing up for the Most Stigmatized Benefit

I call myself frayed white collar -- part of the privileged poor. I'm a semi-accomplished, mid-career journalist and writer, but now I'm hurtling precipitously toward poverty.

“Mister Cook!  Chris Cook?  Mr. Cook!  Window three!”

I walk through the pasty government-issue fluorescent light and bureaucratic cinderblock waiting room, ushered into the inner sanctum of welfare benefits review. I feel oddly privileged, striding past rows of glum, tired, bored and frustrated faces; how have I been picked out so quickly, after just 15 minutes of sitting?

Getting inside doesn’t mean you’ll get approved, but, like waiting in a doctor’s lobby, sheer movement into a different room gives one hope.  Progress.

My benefits counselor, a tall, stocky, healthfully heavyset Indian man, speaks like a machine gun.  ”Fifty-five,” he says brusquely as he waves his arm at a numbered booth in a long row of numbered booths.  I’m still non-caffeinated so it takes me a moment to realize what “55″ means, then I take my seat across from him.  It looks (and feels) like I’m in prison.

The caseworker, whom I’ll call Chakim, is vigorous and businesslike.  ”ID?  Social Security card?”

I quickly hand him everything: my driver’s license, threadbare Social Security card with my awkward childhood signature, and my passport complete with its January 2011 stamp from India (I hope he notices).

He asks me, rat-a-tat-tat: “Unemployed?  How much per month?  Self-employed?  Pay by cash or personal check?”

“I am self-employed,” I tell him, “payment is very inconsistent.  Maybe $750 or $800 a month.”

“You have pay stubs?  Pay in cash or personal check?”

I show him a few scattered check receipts from a folder.  Four hundred and fifty dollars here, $100 there, another for $200, another for $500.  This is the writer’s life today.

“And how much is your rent?  Other bills?”

I tally them up: $770 for rent, $40 for cellphone, $25 for utilities.  That’s over $800 right there.

Chakim looks at me quizzically.  ”So how are you surviving?  Your rent is higher than your income?”

Savings, I tell him.  It’s true: For the past few years, as a semi-accomplished, mid-career journalist and writer, I’ve been scuffling in the always difficult, but now beastly hard choppy waters of freelancing, supplementing my obscenely low (often under $15,000) income with some money my grandmother left me years ago.  Combined, in the city of San Francisco, I live on something around $20,000.  Every year, even as I work my butt off scrambling for assignments and clients, that little nest egg shrivels frightfully smaller. Now it’s almost gone, and though I’ve had some good little runs here and there with work, I’m hurtling precipitously toward poverty.

I’m hardly alone in my marginally privileged plight: As Huffington Post reported in June 2010, food critic Ed Murrieta went from restaurant-hopping with an expense account to living off a $200-a-month food stamp allotment. According to the USDA, 46.3 million Americans depend on food stamps to survive — a historic high, due to recession and population growth.

The soaring food stamp rolls, though quite predictable in the midst of a deep recession, have inspired wealthy Republican candidates for president (is there any other kind?) to brand Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” even though, according to USA Today, the rolls rose more sharply under President George W. Bush.

Roughly one in six Americans (one in five children) does not have reliable access to food. According to USA Today, citing census data, nearly half the country is poor or low-income.  Even as unemployment eases modestly in some places, the vast underbelly of America is, economically and nutritionally, underfed.

I call myself frayed white collar — part of the privileged poor.  I have a college degree, a career and an array of middle-class, working-class and more economically privileged friends; together we are a fairly good representation of the 97 percent, or maybe the 95 percent.  And most of us are hard-pressed; even my teacher friends, making about $60,000 a year, are perpetually flat-lined economically, eking across each month’s finish line thanks to credit cards.

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