My Beef With Cory Booker’s Food Stamps Experiment

December 5, 2012

Cory Booker at the 2011 Time 100 Gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Cory Booker at the 2011 Time 100 Gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

I like Cory Booker. I worked with someone at Academy for Educational Development in the mid-00s who told me stories about Booker while she knew him at Stanford and her contact with him over the years. I’ve admired his work in Newark, for the most part, and the fact that he’s been a personable, in-your-face Twitter-accessible mayor who has fought hard for his city over the past decade.

But this week-long “I feel your pain” publicity stunt through living on $30 in food stamps (the SNAP program) seems a bad idea at best, and just plain disingenuous otherwise. Booker’s argument has been the need to raise awareness of how difficult it is to live on food stamps for the most impoverished of us, in Newark or anywhere else in the US. After being critical of Booker’s slumming it via food stamps on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I received this response from Booker through tech guru and Princeton doctoral candidate Omar Wasow:

“@decollins1969 @corybooker said you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t understand them & you can’t understand w/out shared experience”

Really? I didn’t know that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been homeless, old and sick and out of work before ramming through the Social Security Act of 1935! Or that Lyndon Johnson had been a sharecropper or beaten up for marching to Selma before pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965!

President Bill Clinton (in context of "I feel your pain" quote), July 23, 2009. (http://dailybail.com).

President Bill Clinton (in context of “I feel your pain” quote), July 23, 2009. (http://dailybail.com).

What worries me, though, more than anything else, is how messiah-like this tweet sounds. It would be a different story if so many politicians and journalists hadn’t run this experiment before (see my post “Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering” from October ’10). It would be even more different if this experiment really opened up a dialogue on the paltry social safety net and deep poverty. Not to mention the working poor and the millions from the struggling middle class who have fallen into poverty since the start of the Great Recession more than four years ago.

But as someone who’s had way more than one week or one month’s worth of experience with poverty, WIC, welfare checks, case workers with Westchester County Department of Social Services, and of course, food stamps, I actually find these attempts to walk in the shoes of my youth — among millions of others who’ve lived in welfare poverty — insulting on so many levels (see my posts “The Five Sense of Poverty,” “Hunger,” and “Shopping at C-Town“).
Here’s what I lived with between ages twelve and seventeen (October ’82 through August ’87). As the second-oldest child and only other sane person in a household of six, then seven, then eight persons (including my four younger siblings, born between ’79 and ’84), I had many adult responsibilities. I negotiated over the phone with Con Edison and NYNEX/Bell Atlantic when we fell behind on the heat bill or the telephone bill. I walked my mom’s $275 rent check (often three weeks late in ’82 and ’83) over to the super’s office for payment, and usually was at the receiving end of verbal insults and threats for being late.
I went to Waldbaum’s, C-Town and other grocery stores almost every day after school, sometimes three times in one evening (because my mom often forgot items). I also washed clothes with my older brother Darren once a week, watched over my siblings, cooked about one out of every five meals from ’84 until I went off to college in ’87.
Lab mice "Avatars" implanted with cancer to treat cancer, October 5, 2012. (http://danisfoundation.org).

Lab mice “Avatars” implanted with cancer to treat cancer, October 5, 2012. (http://danisfoundation.org).

This is the short list. In doing all of this, especially once we went on welfare in April ’83 (after the birth of my now deceased sister Sarai), I learned a lot about how little Americans thought of the poor, and how little the federal government thought of people like me and my family. The average budget for my mom to raise a family of six kids with a consistently unemployed and wayward idiot (now late) stepfather was a monthly welfare check of $558, $75 in food stamps, and about $50 in WIC benefits.
Even in the best months, it meant a week to ten days with little or no food in the house. Great Northern beans and rice, $5 spaghetti and meat sauce dinners, and days without was a typical month. Unless, of course, my weekly weekend excursions to track down my father Jimme in Mount Vernon, the Bronx and sometimes in Midtown Manhattan at his favorite watering holes yielded enough extra funds to keep me, Darren and my family in food and clean clothes during the leaner times each month at 616.

So, you see Cory Booker, your publicity endeavor really teaches us little about the realities of poverty, hunger and nutrition for the poorest among us, whether in Newark, Mount Vernon, New York or the rest of the US. (Except that you have no experience stretching a dollar). Your food stamps experiment will do what it always does – get the media’s attention. But to understand the embarrassment, the cold stares, the harshness of what I went through and millions like me are going through now? One week and $30 isn’t even close to good enough.


Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering

December 15, 2010

New York City – “Doing the slums” – A scene in the Five Points / from a sketch by a staff artist, Policeman leading upper class people through the Five Points neighborhood, Published 1885; December 15, 2010. Source: http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3c20000/3c22000/3c22600/3c22660v.jpg

In July and August ’83, my family’s first summer on welfare, then US Secretary of Agriculture John Block decided to do an experiment involving food stamps, at least as reported by USA Today at the time (unfortunately, USA Today’s archives only go as far back as ’87). He had himself and his family “live” off of food stamps — $58 worth — for a week.

Official Secretary of Agriculture Photo, John R. Block, December 15, 2010. Source: http://news.siu.edu/news/April04/040104pr4039.htm

Mind you, Block didn’t move them out of their comfortable home in NW DC to live in SE Washington or off North Capitol Street and New Jersey Avenue. They didn’t stop buying clothes, driving cars or paying their other bills. No, for a week, the Block family — including their nineteen-year-old daughter and the daughter’s equally anorexic nineteen-year-old friend — bought their food with food stamps to show how hard (or easy) it was for a family of four to budget for all of their eating needs on the government welfare dime.

Last week, Mediabistro.com reported on twenty-three year-old Daily Caller reporter and American University grad student Matthew Boyle’s work to do a three-story account of his food stamps experience. “You wouldn’t think I’d qualify….I don’t meet the traditional definition of a poor person, and in fact I’m not poor. But that didn’t matter to the District’s Department of Human Services. They approved me anyway,” Boyle said. Then Boyle gave his income. “I make $600 a month writing for Daily Caller and another $493 as a teaching assistant at AU. My rent is $1,365.”

Sorry Boyle, but by income alone, you qualify for food stamps, because unless things have changed since my grad school years, only your part-time reporter income counts as traditional income from a workforce standpoint, enabling you to qualify. By definition, you are poor, no matter your middle-income and elite university sensibilities.

But there’s a more important point than shattering Boyle’s socioeconomic views of himself that I need to make here, though. It stems in part from these strokes of Boyle’s keyboard: “The arrangement works because most of my rent and other expenses are covered under my student loans or paid by my parents (thanks, Mom and Dad).”

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

Yes, this is what makes your situation a middle class one, your loans and your parents. As if millions of other people who are poor or solidly middle class haven’t received help from loans, parents, or, God-forbid, food stamps. That someone with Boyle’s background shouldn’t qualify because his parents have the dollars to bail him out.

It’s downright idiotic to complain about qualifying for food stamps. There are millions of other people with similar incomes, including grad students, who are grateful to have the program to supplement their income so that they can eat and pay rent. It’s also a bit arrogant to see the system as flawed from the contrarian perspective of a White middle class outsider — one who is technically poor at present — who thinks that it’s too easy to get food stamps.

This goes beyond John Block or Matthew Boyle, though. I took a creative nonfiction writing class to help kick-start my transition from academic writing to other, more literary forms in September ’01. The class was mostly made up of folks who saw themselves as middle class, many of whom were White. For one particular personal literary account assignment, four of these students decided to interview homeless men and women, all of whom were of color. I think that was the last class I showed up for, to hear these students talk about how touched they were by the horrors that had affected their subjects.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand or even help others less fortunate than us. The need to go slumming so that you can tell a story, though, is all too typical of a superficially minded society and journalism community. I didn’t need Block’s August ’83 experiment to know that it was hard to shop with food stamps — I shopped every day for my mother with them, and usually with a tinge of bitterness about using them. Boyle’s slumming to uncover inconsistencies is an example of yet another wannabe journalist making their name off of others misery.

These are stories that would be much better told by someone who’s either lived the experience or is extremely knowledgeable of the people and subjects involved. But in our screwed up world, people like me are too biased to tell these stories, in articles and in books. And people wonder why writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison became expatriates or bitter later in their careers.


Shopping at C-Town

September 9, 2010

C-Town Sign, Plainfield, NJ. Source: Plainfield Today, http://ptoday.blogspot.com/2010/07/c-town-supermarket-touches-nerve.html

I’ve spent very little time walking down memory lane regarding Crush #1 this year. Partly because I’m sure some of my readers are sick of hearing about my love for her, and partly because I’m sure she’s sick of hearing about herself. But this short story is more about me than her.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, I experienced my first — and nearly my last — embarrassment around food stamps at the one-time C-Town grocery store near the corner of Park Avenue and East Prospect Avenue in Mount Vernon. I was shopping after 7 pm for groceries after a quick stop at Mount Vernon Public Library early on in my freshman year at Mount Vernon High School. It was right around the last Rosh Hashanah I’d recognize as a Hebrew-Israelite, a Wednesday or Thursday night. I was buying some pinto beans, Carolina Long Grain Rice, beef neck bones and other healthy yet cheap things to eat for the next few days.

It’d always been a struggle to shop for my family during the Hebrew-Israelite years, to find kosher food, to buy strange things like matzohs or kosher salt. But it had become stranger for me earlier that year, when we ended up on welfare and using food stamps after April ’83. By that fateful evening, I’d maybe used my

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

mother’s food stamps a half-dozen times. Other times, I’d used my father Jimme’s money to pay for the groceries, the indignity of using food stamps was so great. And when I shopped in Mount Vernon, I was acutely aware of the possibility that I could bump into one of my better-off classmates while paying for groceries with my stereotypical food stamps. As far as I was concerned, they already had too many things they could make fun of me about as it was.

So as I finished combing the slender and short aisles of C-Town for kosher bargains, I began my trek to the cash registers at the front, relieved that I hadn’t bumped into any folks I knew. Only to run into Crush #1, having beaten me to the cashier that was open at the time.” Damn,” I thought, one of the few times before the age of twenty-one that the word damn ever invaded my thoughts. She was polite enough to say “Hey, Donald,” to engage me in a short conversation about the start of high school.

Although I was usually grateful to be in my first love’s presence, all I wanted to do at that moment was run away, get out of the store as fast as I could. Instead, I went through the motions, answering her questions and asking a couple of ones about the teachers we had in common that year, like Cuglietto and Murphy. Luckily for me, she didn’t linger after she paid the cashier, and said her laters while I was still being rung up. I quickly handed the cashier my $20 in food stamps, told them to keep the Monopoly money change, and walked around the corner and down Prospect to 616 at Warp Factor 3.

The funny thing about getting older — not old, but older — is that it would take a lot more than food stamps to embarrass me these days. Especially now that you can get welfare checks and food stamps through direct deposit and EBT cards. I’m sure that Crush #1 thought nothing of our short conversation that evening, and neither did I, other than feeling awkward about the reminder that I was completely out of my league, not only from a relationship standpoint, but in terms of my lot in life overall. Boy, I’m glad that things have changed — that I’ve grown — so much in past twenty-seven years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a blog to remind me of my ridiculous past.


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