Step 1. The Poverty Line.
They told us we’d live in poverty. We must understand—really understand—the hurdles that those living in poverty must leap over in order to survive. Brace yourself, they told us, it’s going to be rough.
I didn’t and it was.
My name is Lauren Spinella and I am an Americorps VISTA. The Americorps VISTA program is an initiative geared towards sustaining and strengthening existing anti-poverty organizations. The people served by these organizations live below the poverty line. As an Americorps VISTA, so do I.
Coming from a middle-class family and a financially stable household, I had trouble wrapping my head around the whole idea of poverty. I had savings. I had support. I wasn’t worried.
I wasn’t worried until about two weeks in to my VISTA term when I found myself holding up the check-out line at Publix, frantically digging through the bottom of my purse for pennies and nickels to pay for my Poptarts and Ramen Noodles.
Yes, I had savings and yes, I had support—but when my car was totaled (courtesy of a reckless driver) and my home was flooded (courtesy of Hurricane Issac), my savings were no more.
Life happened and I was broke. I could barely scrounge up enough pocket change to cover my $10 grocery bill and after two weeks of running on sugar and hope, I could feel my body closing up shop.
My wallet and body agreed: it was time to ask Uncle Sam for food stamps.
Step 2: Apply
In early September, I started the process of applying for food stamps. The flooding had knocked out my internet access but luckily, I could look up information online at work. The application process went as follows:
1. Google.com. Google Search: “I need food stamps South Carolina”
2. Click on: The South Carolina Department of Social Services.
3. Click on: Apply for benefits.
4. Fill out a short application asking for information on your income, rent payments, and other bills.
15 minutes later, I was done and getting back to work. This couldn’t be any easier, I thought.
Step 3: Phone interview
I received a letter on October 4th asking me to call in to the Department of Social Services to complete my phone interview. Food stamp applicants must interview with a Social Worker to clarify any inconsistencies in their application and further express their need for assistance. I realized later how much this speaks to the whole process of applying for food stamps. It is set up in a way that breaks one down when they are asking for help building themselves up. It says, “Tell us how much you need us. Tell us again. Beg. Grovel.” And you do.
I had until October 24th to call in for my phone interview. With our big event Dash for Trash coming up, I barely had time to eat lunch, let alone spend 2 hours on the phone with Social Services. Dash for Trash was on October 20th. I planned to call in immediately afterwards.
I didn’t get that far. On October 15th, I received a letter saying I had missed my phone interview.
I double checked the first letter. “Please call by October 24th to complete your phone interview.” I double checked the date. October 15th. Really?
At the bottom of the new letter, it said “Call in by October 31st. We’re doing you a favor by extending your deadline. Get ready to do some extreme begging.” Okay, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general idea. The next day at work, I rushed to get the bulk of my work done in the morning. At 3:00pm, I called in to the Department of Social Services.
“Thank you for calling. Your wait time is approximately 45 minutes.” Awesome. I put my phone on speaker and left it on my desk while I continued working.
32 minutes into my wait, the call was disconnected. At this time, it was a little bit after 3:30pm. The phone lines closed at 4:30. I knew that by the time I waited for another 45 minutes and finally got through to a representative, it would be too late to conduct the interview.
The next day, I finished my work by 1:30pm, leaving plenty for me to call (and call back if the call was dropped) and complete the interview. After about 45 minutes of fumbling through an automated menu and waiting on hold, I finally got through to a human being and began the interview. I was asked about 500 questions about my occupation, as if my story about being a volunteer through the Federal Government wasn’t convincing enough. The whole interview process was just embarrassing. At the end, my interviewer told me that she would be sending me a letter listing all of the documentation she needed me to send back in.
“Can’t you just tell me what I need to send now so I don’t waste any time waiting for the letter?”
Nope. So I waited.
Step 4: The Letter
About 2 weeks later, I received the letter. They asked me to send back a copy of my lease, proof of income, and a copy of my electric bill. I went two more weeks waiting for a letter that listed three things? I received the letter on Monday, October 29th and had to get the documentation in by Friday, November 2nd. One week.
Question: How was I going to take off work to drive to North Charleston and wait on line for an hour just to hand in three papers?
Answer: I wasn’t.
I printed out the three documents they asked for (thankfully, I have a printer at work), put them in a stamped envelope, and sent them off to the Department of Social Services.
Steps 5, 6, and 7: Wait.
I’m still waiting to hear whether or not I will be given food stamps. A few of my fellow Americorps VISTAs completed Steps 1-4 before I did and were told weeks after submitting their documentation that it was never received. If they don’t receive your documentation, they ask you to resubmit (and you do) and then, if the documentation is misplaced again, you’re denied. Game over. Go back to start.