Receiving financial assistance from the state of Nevada is a humbling experience
Even before you open the door to the Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, you feel marginalized. It’s at 3697 King’s Row, and because the parking lot is teeming with people going to Supportive Services for a variety of reasons, the lot is segregated into two areas. If you’re a patron of one of the businesses in the shopping center, you can park anywhere, but if you come seeking help from the government, park on the other side of the white line, or you’ll be towed.
I never thought that I’d be here, standing in a line that nearly trails out the door to Supportive Services, in hopes of qualifying for SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. My story is not uncommon these days. My partner and I have both held jobs since we were in our teens. Neither of us had ever received food stamps. We vote, pay our taxes, contribute to our community and, without notice, we both suddenly find ourselves scrambling for work. Being on food stamps is embarrassing for me. I’m told that it shouldn’t be, but it is.Waiting room
Officially, they’re not called food stamps anymore. You’re issued an EBT card, which stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer. The card might be subtler and less shameful to produce to the cashier, but the only thing that has changed is the technology: EBT is the food stamp of the 21st century. With the EBT card, you can purchase just about any food product, even seeds to grow food. The card doesn’t cover things like diapers, non-food items or pet food. Logically, it doesn’t cover alcohol or tobacco.
Six months ago, I thought that people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. Maybe there were people who genuinely deserved supplemental help from the government, like those with documented physical or mental disabilities, the elderly, single parents without support, and so on. Previously, I thought that the majority of individuals who stood in the endless line for welfare were working the system in lieu of working 9-5. That’s what I thought until I joined the long list of people waiting to ask for help in feeding their families.
The place is what you would expect from a packed government building. The interior is spartan, just fluorescent lights and informational posters. If you come to Supportive Services, bring a few magazines, a book, a knitting project, a notepad and a Rubik’s Cube. If you don’t find staring at the back of a stranger’s head for two hours an entertaining way to spend a few hours, come armed with entertainment. Literacy has little to do with being broke, and I’d say that over half of the room is reading something. Before you can sit down and tackle some time-consuming task, you must wait in line. Social Services is under-funded and short-staffed.
When I finally get to the front of the line, I ask to see my caseworker. “She is about to go to lunch,” I am told. “If you want, you can come back in a few hours.”
Though you come completely prepared, you are going to have to wait a lot, so it’s best to do your homework before you even get there. The whole process starts with a lengthy, perplexing application. The forms can be downloaded online, or you can stop by the office, pick up an application in English or Spanish, and come back with all of the appropriate documentation to give the office. To receive any sort of supplemental welfare, you must fill out the 16-page packet and submit a staggering number of forms.
There are always two guards on duty. They wear crisp white shirts, black pants and badges. They are friendly and helpful. There are conflicts in the office, but every time I’ve been there, the people around me have been quiet and respectful. If you cause any sort of problem, your benefits will be delayed or cancelled, so people are on their best behavior.
A woman approaches the guards. “We can mail these in, right?” she asks.
“Yeah, you can mail them in,” he responds. “Do you have envelopes with the address?” The guard leads her over to the bulletin board on the other side of the room, and shows her the information she needed.
If you do everything right, your case may still be backed up for weeks simply because the place is so overloaded with people needing financial assistance. And the people who fill up the room don’t fit any stereotype. They look like you and me—because they are. Some are well-dressed, many have kids, there are old people and young people, there is no predominate ethnicity represented. I think of the huddled masses and the idea of the melting pot, and think, “This must be it.”
I’m not saying that the American Dream failed us. Poverty in America is nothing like poverty in, say, India. Our system is fractured, but at least there is some help for our citizens if they’re willing and able to fill out the papers.
From the moment the place opens, some Disney movie is playing. This is a good idea, because there are always a number of kids waiting with their parents at the office. If you can’t afford food, chances are that you can’t afford a babysitter, either.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is on, and every child in the room stares at the screen in rapt, enchanted attention. Snow White sings “Whistle While You Work,” and I glare at the TV. I’m here today for the employment workshop, a mandatory program that teaches people how to find work. To keep your benefits, you must keep your appointment for the two-hour workshop and apply for 20 jobs within a set period of time. As those assigned to the workshop file into the adjacent room, the resurrected alabaster princess prepares a meal with the seven dwarfs, and I wonder if I’m the only one in the room who sees humor in the irony of this scene.
My family has received SNAP benefits for six months, and hopefully, we’ll be caught up to the point that next month, we can call up Supportive Services to tell them that we are no longer eligible for assistance. We have received $343 a month for a family of three, and it has helped us keep our house. It has been a frustrating experience, fraught with miscommunications and backed-up benefits, but we are grateful that we live in a country that provides a safety net for those in need of immediate emergency assistance. Before I was unemployed, I used to fill up my grocery cart at Whole Foods without even looking at prices. Now, I’m budgeting and buying bulk at WinCo. I’ve learned to live simply, to use less packaging, and to cook more from scratch. Not only is it cheaper, it’s healthier.
As of 2009, the federal poverty level was marked at $18,310 for a family of three. My family has been living right at the brink of poverty for nearly a year. Nonetheless, we feel extremely fortunate: Because of the supplemental assistance, we saved our home from foreclosure and have jobs right around the corner. This has not been a pleasant experience, but I am grateful for it, not just for the assistance during a rough time, but also for the empathy that it has taught me. A woman who owns her own business and fell on hard times is behind me in line.
“I’d rather die than come back to this office,” she confides. That makes two of us.