TRYING TO KEEP my eyes in sync with the jerky movement of the bus grinding it way downtown, I read another newspaper story about pending cuts in the food stamp program. An emotional issue. Taking food from the mouths of children, says Congressman Blip. Getting the chiselers off the rolls, says Sen. Blop. In another few minutes I will be at my desk, a stroke of my pen granting or denying food stamps to living people, the people of Blip and Blop, the needy and the free-loaders, the wretched and the rougues. Would that the line between were always clearer than it is . . .
John Scott follows me to my desk and the day's interviewing begins. He is a young man and he tells me that he left the Navy to accept a lucrative offer from Western Electric; inexplicably, the job fell through and John has been out of steady work for almost a year. A college graduate with a degree in nursing, he has spent much of the year looking for work for which he is clearly overqualified. Scott's wife has quit college to help support them by working part-time in a gift shop; he doesn't want her to work full-time because he wants her to prepare herself for a return to school.
I register him for work availability and ask for his wife's pay receipts so that I can determine their eligibility for food stamps. He says he has none, that his wife doesn't keep them. May I call her employer? No, he doesn't want her to know that he is applying for stamps. I tell him no tickee, no shirtee. He refuses an emergency supply of canned goods and leaves angry and frustrated. (Next day Scott calls, says he has found a couple of pay receipts which he offers to read over the phone. Won't do, I tell him; I have to see them. He hangs up on me. I send him a letter telling him that unless I have the necessary data within 10 days I'll have to close his case. Shortly thereafter, I receive three of his wife's weekly pay receipts --- they are more than low enough to qualify. I process Scott's case and, for at least the next three months, he will receive the food stamp maximum for two people -- $128 per month.)
Mrs. Walters, an obese woman in her mid-40s, bustles in, her 2-year-old daughter in tow. Walters is in an agitated state -- her food stamps for this month have been stolen; she is also here to be recertified for next month. Her husband works and his salary, although not adequate for their family of nine in their current circumstances, is high enough to disqualify the family for welfare.
The two grown Walters boys, 19 and 17, are part of the black unemployment problem. They have recently moved and have new bills to pay. Walters answers all my questions, apologizing all the while for being such a nuisance. I authorize replacement of the stolen stamps and offer her canned goods to tide her over. Walters says she'll wait -- her children won't eat the canned food. She says she will borrow until she receives the stamps.
Harold Agger has been waiting 25 minutes and is annoyed at the delay. I explain about Mrs. Walters' emergency. He is here for recertification but balky about completing another application since, he insists, nothing has changed since his last one. So I ask him the routine questions and fill the form out for him. (Subsequently, it develops that he has had another addition to his family -- their ninth child -- since the last time; but I don't learn about that until he later calls up in a temper because the stamp allowance has not been increased accordingly.)
One of the questions: "Do you receive on a regular basis any money from friends or relatives, other than loans?" Agger now mentions receiving from $150 to $200 a month from his father-in-law which he will not have to repay; he has been receiving it since he began taking some theological courses five years ago, but none of this appears on his previous applications. His wife works at a private religious school where she earns under $3,000 per year; she pays her baby-sitter $150 a month -- $35 above the maximum deduction from income allowed under the food stamp formula.
Both the Aggers are college graduates. He also has a master's degree in psychology. I guess I am kind of peckish about his case. It goes back to our first interview. Agger had refused to accept a job that had been offered to him because it was outside his field of psychology; food stamp policy permits him to do so without penalty. Still, it puzzled me. I told him that I also have a master's in psychology, have been unable to get a job in that field, and that I've had to settle for this, which is not the world's greatest job. He had shrugged to indicate that that was my problem, not his.
Mrs. Rabin is here for her recertification, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, neatly dressed in skirt, sweater and bow blouse. Mother of six children. I ask her the routine has-anything-changed question. She sighs and shows me her husband's notice of termination from his teaching job at a rabbinical college; he is not elibilble for unemployment benefits as the school had not contributed to the unemplomment fund. I register him for work and ask her if she'd like to apply for welfare. She declines. They live in public housing and receive fuel assistance, and she thinks they can manage on food stamps until he finds something.
I arrange for an increase in the allowance because of the loss of income and tell her to let me know if Mr. Rabin finds work. (Two months later Mrs. Rabin calls to say that they've gone into business selling pantyhose in a flea market and are earning about $350 a week. Slight complication: The work registration officials have called him in for a job interview and he didn't go because he no longer needs a job. I advise her to have him go for the interview and explain his situation so that he is not disqualified from receiving food stamps. From the profits and expenses figures she has provided, they are still eligible for stamps.)
Mary Winters, expectant mother. She tells me she lives with her mother, a widow, who has been incapacitated since being attacked by a patient in the mental hospital where she worked. Winters herself works part-time for a temporary-help agency. She says she and her mother are now virtually foodless. I process her as an emergency case and tell her to keep me informed of any changes in her situation.
She calls intermittently during the next three months, reporting no change. Then she calls in some alarm to tell me that she has been contacted by one of our quality control workers, who has asked her a lot of questions. I tell Winters that this isn't something I initiated, that these workers pick cases at random to verify the facts. Later the quality control workers calls. She tells me that Winters lives with her mother -- and with her father, who she had said was dead.
Then Winters calls, very upset, and asks me what she should do. I tell her that her deception about her father and his income -- which, according to the quality worker's later report, is about $40,000 a year -- is a serious matter. She tells me she had become confused since her father never paid the food bills, but that she would pay back the value of any stamps to which she had not been entitled. The last I hear, there was to be no prosecution for fraud other than a possible attempt to have the family pay back what they had received.
Marilyn Parker, a young woman in her twenties, with two young children. Her husband had left her because he didn't want her to have the second child. She receives public assistance payments for herself and her daughter, but not for her son, because his father -- her ex-husband -- is supposed to be providing child support for him. But he only sends clothing, no money. Or so Parker had told me in an earlier interview.
I had asked her for a note of verification from her husband. That would be difficult, Parker said. Her husband had remarried and his new wife wouldn't let Parker have any contact with him. Besides, Parker said, he was in the hospital, recovering from a motorcycle accident. Now I have to confront Parker with the fact that the welfare worker has sent me proof that her ex-husband has, in fact, been giving her $120 a month for child suuport for more than a year. So I have to count that as income in determining her eligibility for the stamps. As it turns out, she is still eligible, although for a smaller allotment. Parker leaves, much relieved. I watch her frail, retreating figure and wonder: Welfare cheat -- or spunky kid, using her wiles to cope with the self-perpetuating welfare economy in which she has been entrapped most of her life?
As if to balance the scales for Marilyn Parker's sins of omission, Herbert Morrison, here for recertificaiton, is the next case. He and his wife have a small pension, but both are elderly and in poor health. I ask him if there have been any changes in his circumstances. None, he says. But then I see listed on one of his earlier applications an income source of $70 a month which doesn't appear on the form he has just filled out. I learn that for the last six months that source of income has dried up. I ask him why he didn't report this change months ago so that he could be allotted more stamps. Morrison says he just didn't know it would make any difference. Although I can't issue retroactive payments, he will receive more stamps next month because of his reduced income.
Richard Johnson, poorly dressed and tired-looking, limps forward for his recertificaiton. I'm familiar with his case. He is 67 years old and worked most of his life for a fence company. He gets only modest social security payments and has been waiting for a small pension from the fence company, but he doesn't know whether he will ever receive it; the company's responses to his inquiries have been evasive, and there is apparently some dispute within the company on the issue.
Johnson tells me that nothing in his situation has changed and will I please hurry it up -- his wife is ill and can't be left alone long. I see that she is listed on the last application as working and ask him when she stopped. He says she never has worked. I show him the application. That's not income, he says, she works as a domestic three days a week. I tell him it is counted as income. Johnson gets angry. He says that if a person is honest and admits to doing a little work he is penalized by having his stamps reduced, that it's a crazy system where you get more if you don't do any work. He leaves unhappy, saying he doesn't know how they will manage. I don't either.
The last interview of the day is by telephone. Marcia Anderson is so distraught that the personal interview has been waived. Anderson is one of those unfortunates whose very real problems are compounded by her compulsion to be a nudnick. She has just been through the trial of having her busband leave the hospital and enter a nursing home. She is overwhelmed by the adjustment to singledom and the confusing rigamarole of medical bills and insurance claim forms. Her social security check is now going to the nursing home before she receives her share, and she is virtually paralyzed by the how, when and where to pay her other mounting bills. I am aware that two social workers had earlier been assigned to help her cope, but she had been such a persistent caller that they had taken to avoiding her calls. She tells me that her son, who lives nearby, has given up on her -- I assume for the same reason.
I can understand why people avoid her -- for several days prior to this phone interview she had called me up each day, and each day I found I had less time to spend reassuring her. Still, it's not her fault if she can't cope -- and what is someone like that to do? I tell her that on the basis of her increased expenses, only part of which are covered by insuracne, we should be able to get an increase in her food stamp allotment. But I will need copies of the bills, and I have real doubts that she can pull herself together enough to get them to me.
Sufficient unto the day . . . I think maybe this job is getting too depressing for me. Did I deprive some deserving family? Am I part of an unfeeling bureaucracy, as Jim Scott implied? Am I getting so wary of the Aggers that I'm too suspicious of the Johnsons? I think back to the newspaper and I wonder whether it is possible, by whatever legislation, to sparate out the "truly needy." And why does the bus always take longer going home