“YOU SAW THE job applications, right?” the social worker asks me and nods in the direction of a bulletin board festooned with red construction paper stars. I imagine the staff meeting where someone asked, “You know what would totally liven this place up and make people forget they’re applying for food stamps and other means of government assistance? STARS! Fuck yes, I’ll get my tracing paper.”
I’m sitting on a gray plastic chair and my crutches are perched against the social worker’s battered wooden desk. I reply, “Yes, I saw them,” and my voice sounds uncharacteristically timid. She is a woman in her fifties with short brown hair and seems neither kind nor cruel. She briefly makes eye contact before checking a box on the first page of a tall stack of forms. I’m certain she’ll forget me by the time I hobble out the sliding glass doors and into the parking lot littered with candy bar wrappers and broken glass and other detritus that somehow didn’t make it to the state-issued garbage can perched right there. I need her to remember my case, though, and feel humiliated and desperate.
It’s Seattle, January 2002 and this isn’t how I’d planned on starting the new year. But four months prior, I’d experienced a severe relapse of CFIDS, an illness that presents in many ways like M.S., and I’d found myself in a wheelchair for the second time in a decade. By now, I’ve progressed to crutches again but am still far too ill to resume work. My money is gone and my parents have been incredibly supportive emotionally and financially for the past ten years, but my depleted health has likewise depleted their savings.
So I’m sitting in this florescent-lit neighborhood welfare office with its scuffed walls and kids far too young to look so worn out, hoping I won’t run into anyone I know. But then, why would I? Through dumb luck, I was fortunate enough to be born to a family of some means. I attended private schools growing up. At the University of Washington my writing professors had been generous enough to praise my work, as well as that of my peers, and so I had entered adulthood thinking, “This might not be so bad.”
Through equally dumb luck, my immune, circulatory and central nervous systems had other plans. By twenty-four I was in a wheelchair for the first time and dozens of physicians had told me I’d never work again and that, basically, I was hosed. After protracted physical therapy and tapping inner reserves of near-psychotic tenacity, I’d proven them wrong. I was never asymptomatic and was often intensely ill, but still managed to write.
At the moment, though, just getting dressed to make this appointment has zapped my physical strength and I’m worried if I’ll have enough energy to drive the short distance home.
The social worker hands me a packet so unwieldy it might hold the entire city’s allotment of paperwork. I am bogarting everyone’s questionnaires, it seems. “Your doctor will have to fill these out and explain that you’re too sick to work,” she says. “Then we can proceed. In the meantime, you qualify for emergency aid.” She’s determining the imminent course of my life with the nonchalance of a barista making decaf instead of regular and I feel even more vulnerable. I try not to take her tone personally: when I was healthy, I’d worked as a domestic violence victim advocate during the day while I wrote at night, so I know what it’s like to process big decisions quickly. And I’m far more fortunate than the women and men I’d see or, for that matter, these poor, beleaguered children only yards away from me now.
“When do I need to turn everything in?” I ask and again emit an unfamiliar voice. If I were meeting me for the first time, I’d never guess I’m, well, me. The longer I’m in this office, the more protective skin I shed. A few more minutes and I’ll bleed on the linoleum below that undoubtedly has already been splashed with all manner of fluids.
“The instructions are on the first page, okay?” she responds with finality. She clicks a device behind her desk and the dot-matrix-type light above her cubicle advances one digit. I’m still sitting in the gray chair, but she has already moved on to her next client, whose troubles probably will be nothing like mine but will resemble them all the same because crises, like their bearers, share DNA at their core. I reach for my crutches and she asks, “Do you need help?” more as a way of expediting my exit than offering assistance.
“I’m fine,” I say. It’s the only lie I’ve told her during this intake.*
Few of my loved ones know I was ever on food stamps. I’ve had an incurable and degenerative illness for 22 years and tend to be open about my health, in part because I have little choice. I usually walk with a cane or with crutches and most days get asked, “What’d you do to your leg?” by misguided if well-meaning strangers when I go for my daily walk, fetch groceries, or hail a cab. I give polite but brief answers by rote and rarely feel off-kilter during these exchanges. Long ago, I decided I wouldn’t dwell on CFIDS, but I wouldn’t deny it, either. Questions organically arise when interacting with everyone from retail clerks asking if they can carry my potential sartorial purchases to new lovers inquiring how CFIDS affects my sexual drive. (Note: it doesn’t.)
But discussing the period I was on food stamps summons memories I’ve shared only with those in my inner circle, and very rarely at that. The disdain or outright hostility I frequently encountered from grocery store clerks or from customers in line behind me who scoffed when I paid with tell-tale currency still reminds me of how close I came to losing my autonomy and how that possibility lingers. And what people who’ve never fought major illness can’t quite understand is that the loss of autonomy can be as terrifying as the symptoms themselves. A few cells revolt and you’re now looking at your former, healthy life through a membrane: you can see it, but it remains agonizingly out of reach. Despite your best efforts, you’re at the mercy of others just to stay afloat.
So why delve into all this now? Because the U.S. House of Representatives is presently considering a whopping $4 billion cut to our nation’s food stamp budget. And if it passes, roughly four million Americans will get booted from the food stamp program with little or no recourse. Or, you know, food. Full disclosure: I skew left on most issues, but have loved ones who are moderate Republicans. That the proposed food stamp cut is spearheaded by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is, for our purposes here, beside the point. That responsible elected officials of any stripe could be so short-sighted and brutal is amoral.
We can debate budgetary concerns ad nauseam but it doesn’t change the axiomatic fact that food is an unavoidable physical need and basic human right. And in a nation with ample food, withholding it is punitive. That’s perhaps the most disturbing part of the larger discussion: there are Americans who view themselves as impervious to the possibility of food stamps, convinced their bodies and financial circumstances will stay resolute in the face of disaster. Because, of course, they believe on some level they are impervious to disaster itself. That they’ve eluded it so far because of some grand action on their part, not through chance. So by this metric, those on food stamps must have fucked up big time somewhere along the line, committed some mistake so egregious and irredeemable that food is now an option that can be withheld at the whim of a legislative body, not the sustenance without which carbon-based life forms die.
Such reasoning is so flawed, it would be laughable if its repercussions weren’t so destructive. Are there persons who abuse the food stamp system, parasitic jagweeds who commit fraud because they’re emotionally damaged and think de facto stealing is a-okay? Yes, of course there are. Assholes permeate every part of society and food stamp recipients are no different. Unquestionably, some of them are unlikeable weasels.
But, of course, that isn’t the crux here. Einstein maintained imagination is more important than intelligence and the condemnation of those on food stamps handily illustrates his point. A large chunk of our elected officials and their constituents can’t imagine they could lose their health or their finances, or that the loss of the former will almost always eradicate the latter. They haven’t experienced it, so the possibility stays remote, like a tsunami they see on the news crashing half a world away.
Those of us who have nearly drowned know differently.