Young, Privileged, and Applying for Food Stamps

by Karina Briski

One recent Friday morning, I went to work. Not to any glass-blocked high rise, or a sprawl of windowless office buildings, but a corner cafe, four minutes from my apartment. With my $1.50 cup of coffee in hand, I dropped my bag and sat down next to my housemate, also a freelancer-slash-struggling-painter, and a new friend. At some point, our casual conversation turned to the stack of papers sticking out from my seam-busted bag: My application for food stamps. Turned out, this new friend had been on them for a few months. I hadn’t even noticed them tighten, but in a second, my shoulders slumped at ease.

“Go to this grocery store,” she said. “They let you buy beer and toilet paper.” I smiled slightly, less because of the beer, and more out of relief to be talking with someone who’d been through this sort of thing. I’d never been on any form of government assistance. I’d also never been more unsure of how I’d make rent in a few weeks.

As we volleyed ideas for the most obscene items to buy with food stamps (a cheese wheel from Whole Foods, we decided), a woman seated next to us leaned forward, her words darting out faster than we could dodge them. “Excuse me, but you’re all disgusting. And if I had time to spare, I would report you.” We were silent, which was her apparent cue to continue. She got on us about the starving people in the U.S., about the people who live in the projects just down the street from us, about draining resources that are meant for truly needy populations of people.

Our irony had fallen on the wrong ears. “But that’s what this service is for,” my housemate responded, relaying the simple facts of our less than part-time (mine) and nonexistent (his, currently) incomes. “How is it wrong?”

“Because you’re overeducated white people,” she said. “Just get a job.”

With a Bachelor’s in Sociology, “overeducated” felt generous. That sociology degree had fed many early curiosities, giving me the adequate chops for things like fighting cultural myopism, defending Marxism, and buying my professors’ books. But this empirical weaponry hasn’t been enough to command any victories on the jobs field.

Post-undergrad, my professional life has played out like a nursery tale. See how I’ve run into and out of dead-end office jobs, blinded more by naivete than bare entitlement. I’ve been an intern more times than I’d like to admit, as unpaid and underpaid as anyone I know. I’ve waited tables whenever I’ve needed to, like when I was three months out of school, jobless, and being considered for a job at Trader Joe’s. After the third interview, the manager called to say I hadn’t been selected. There were 400 applicants for ten positions, he said. Many of them had Master’s degrees or higher. Maybe that’s overeducation, but I can’t say. Three years of chasing entry-level work with Seattle nonprofits, and I decided to take my act to Brooklyn. That was a year ago. I wanted to work in media, but mostly, I’ve gotten really good at scraping the gunk off of ketchup bottles.

On this Friday morning in the cafe, my degree proved even more useless. I could have stared dumbly into my coffee, or attempted to explain three years of resume dumps, networking events and dark Craigslist voids. Instead I left the table to do the work that was to be my only source of income that week. A few strokes of my keyboard later, I realized it wasn’t indignation I felt, it was recognition. I agreed with her. That, with my college education and a working-middle-class-family background, I had somehow failed to keep up my end of the deal, and whatever implicit agreement my privilege came with: to work and contribute to society; to feed and take care of myself; to be resourceful and resolved enough to never accept handouts — especially not from the government.

Not until a friend was laid off from her restaurant job had I even considered applying for food stamps. The whole process had taken her only a few days before she had a shiny plastic card that automatically filled with money at the start of each month. It seemed easy. Smart, even. I knew I would qualify, but was hesitant, for reasons I can only relate to a Midwestern brand of modesty, one that had made the advent of Girl Scout cookie selling — a pinnacle moment for any girl in a green vest — cause for early-adolescent panic. When I was young, the humility of asking strangers to dig out their checkbooks for tiny cookies meant I would never earn a top-seller badge. As an adult, it has meant scrounging up money from whatever recessed savings account or three-hour gig I can tap into before asking for help.

But even there I have personal limits, I realized last summer. I was waiting tables five days a week, but the restaurant had been slow, money was tight, and I needed a bed frame. Sleeping on the floor is one way of saying “I’m young and don’t care about modern home comforts,” but it’s also a way of making getting up even more exhausting than collapsing into bed after an eight-hour shift. And so when a pleasant woman named Lauren told me I could make $300 in three hours by donning a school girl’s outfit and working a foot fetish party, I signed up. An hour before I was scheduled to be in the Financial District, I found myself standing in front of my closet, trying to trying to choose what looked most like a school-girl’s uniform. I didn’t have the right kind of skirt, I decided. I also decided the bed could wait.

Defending my right to go on food stamps seemed ridiculous. It still does. As much as I wanted to tell this woman — whose skin was as white as mine — that you don’t need to be toting two kids or living in housing projects to find yourself in need of help with buying groceries, I said nothing to her. I’ve thought about what I would have said, had I been more compelled. How many people I knew in the same position. How many jobs I’d applied to in the last year. How many interviews I’d had, in maddeningly high disproportion to the number of applications I’d completed. How my education, for me, had functioned as a harbinger of upper-middle class consumption, with suburban comforts like Starbucks and Chipotle on campus. How this was complicated by a prudish and shortsighted view of class and privilege, ideas we dissected in the abstract, from the safe distance of black and white texts on Xeroxed course packets. I could have talked, too, even though I’m more sensitive about this than anything, about my high-school educated parents’ own inexperience with institutionalized education and white-collar professions; how it affected every day of my four years in undergrad, and afterward, as I applied to jobs, blindly guiding myself with the occasional advice of former bosses and professors.

There is a fair amount of shame in this situation. I can’t deny that. To talk about it is to talk about fear, my own prejudices, my assumptions of what privilege and underprivilege look like, about social and cultural capital, urban and rural divides, about race and its relationship to modern economic class segments. In a post-race, class-absolved society, like the one my university seemed so bent on fostering, acknowledging nuance in any concrete way is beating a dead horse. Instead, privilege is stripped of any nuance, wiped clear of context, then packaged, stamped and sold for laughs. They call it “white-person problems.”

I’m not saying this is new. My parents had the same struggles, maybe worse, as twenty-somethings starting a family and a business in the ’80s, facing a recession and a bleaker economy in the mining towns of northern Minnesota. What is new is the myth of the educated middle class as automatic recipients of middle class incomes. What’s new is the assumption that college is some great equalizer (was it ever?), that family-of-origin, economic backgrounds, and old-fashioned connections are just extras. These seem to be the same general assumptions that sweep all young, urban, PBR-sipping kids like me into sitcom caricatures of “poor people,” or, with the right zip code and cocktail preferences, aspiring Carrie Bradshaws or Hannah Horvaths.

Being young, privileged, and poor is not a fun twenty-something adventure. I’m not one cheeky fourth of Girls. This is not an audition for the Bohemia life before I return to my family’s house in the suburbs, or get a job at a financial firm owned by my father’s friend. I don’t have a family in the suburbs, and my father doesn’t have those friends. Moving in with my mom or dad is less an option than it is a death sentence for my professional life, barely existing as is. For me, my need is simple numbers. It’s not the social poverty we know from textbooks and nightly news. It’s transitional and temporary, though there is no guarantee I won’t again find myself in a similar spot.

I don’t hear a lot of talk about food stamps. I guess because it comes down to money, and that’s always taboo, even if it doesn’t share space on the “sex, politics, and religion” creed. People do seem open to talking, though, about what food stamps isn’t. Who it shouldn’t help. They’re the same people who talk about American welfare as a socially if not racially contingent right. Where are these conversations happening? Where are people talking about what it’s like to be educated or from a middle-class family or any other form of privileged and poor, at the very same time? If it’s happening, it’s likely to end when someone says, “Go get a job,” perhaps responded to in 140 passive aggressive characters, spewed quickly in the back of a coffee shop.

As for myself, I now have two jobs, both in the service industry. My food stamps application is still on my desk, filled out, more ready than me to be taken to the office that’s just a few blocks from my apartment. I guess it’s there, in case I need it again. And to be clear: Cheese wheels are off the table.

Karina Briski is a writer (and waitress) in Brooklyn.

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