Applying for Welfare with Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and No Do-Rag

I fell on hard times for a minute and had to apply for food stamps in New York City. They’ll give me 200 dollars a month but I was notified that it’s mandatory for me to do 30 hours of work a week.  Or rather act like I’m working. Or work at looking for work.  Or something.

I thought no problem, I like work – – I’ll earn my keep – – pick up some litter, clean a park.  I’m a writer yo but (just this year) I’ve shoveled snow for the sanitation  department, did mason work on a motel, chased taxis down the street while working for the census.  I went, like the letter directed me to, down to the agency NY state contracts with,  FEGS. 

An applicant was saying ching ching on the phone to someone about something. Another man asked me what “Ethnicity” meant and asked me if I would please write his Employment Goals on the form :  “I just want to stay healthy and do good in the program,” I wrote for him.

Another man flipped out and threatened he’ll go to jail, punch someone in the face. 

I had to take a couple hours of tests:  long division, reading comprehension — they asked us, welfare applicants, broke and failing capitalists, about Frida Kahlo’s  portrait to Leon Trotsky.  Oh, NY State you sly possibly ironic loveable bastards, how’d you get her and him through all that bureaucracy.

I read that I could not wear do- rags.

Another applicant flipped out and said they don’t help nobody, he wanted to work so bad he took all these tests before and it was bullshit, they don’t give him any work. 

They gave me subway fare home.  My counselor seemed kind and caring; in the hallway he kissed an old woman on the cheek.

I asked my counselor is there any way I could, uh, just work for the city or the state instead of just preparing to work, or looking for work, or something,  for 30 hours a week.  I think I have to show up there every day to mimic a work schedule and learn about work, learn about applying for work.  But I know I know. It doesn’t matter. 

I’m exempt if I’m 1) disabled or 2) in a substance abuse program or 3) taking care of a child under the age of six or 4) a refugee.

Well:  1) sometimes I feel like I’m not quite up to a daily regular grind, but I’ve been through a lot and 2) I do like sleeping pills like Rip Van Winkle but I’ve been through a lot and 3) I have trouble caring for plants and showing up for regular family functions, so no I wouldn’t do that to a kid  and 4) I haven’t been through that much.

I left FEGS somewhat bewildered.  Is this a sweatshop, charity, social services, a scam, ridiculous, a roadblock to helpful cash for meat and potatoes, my ticket to self sufficiency? Will they help me get published in McSweeneys (that’s gratuitous, but sadly true-ish).

I actually applied to work at FEGS maybe twenty years ago – – ah, actually more than once, their classified ads seemed so righteous and I was so ready willing and able – – this was when I was fresh out of graduate school and idealistic and wanted to help people.  They never answered.


2 responses

  1. I’m not sure what to make or think about this post.

    @kevinjayheldman is a writer who has inspired every journalist who has been associated with graffiti. Learning that such an accomplished writer is on food stamps isn’t very assuring for the younger generation of journalist and writers.

    Then again, this post could be viewed as a wake up call. Times are tough, and we all have to do things we don’t like or want to do in order to survive. Even if we’re extremely talented or gifted.



  2. Appreciate the nice kind words about my graffiti article and my writing — thank you.

    The food stamps thing — it is tough in journalism financially, but there’s some unique personal stuff also — I don’t really have a supportive family, that’s such a key safety net; I had a back operation and for a number of years I was in really bad pain; and my wife got sick in 2001 and died in 2004 — it took something like 5 years to recover from that psychologically, really knocked me off my game, changed me (but not forever) — there were assignments I couldn’t complete, I lost some, maybe a lot of that intense crazy drive you need to pursue a story and deal with tough subjects, editors, rewrites, the crazy amount of work you have to put in for the kind of stories that I did.

    Doing good journalism is really tough and I made some serious finanical sacrifices most of my life, but there’s that personal stuff of mine (above) that is also part of the whole story. And by the way, a few days ago I got a letter telling me I was cut off from food stamps — had it for maybe 3 months — because I didn’t show up everyday for the mandatory 8 hours of teaching me how to work. I was out working (manual labor) and reporting and researching a story that I think is pretty important and will contribute something of value. Good looking out welfare state.

    I’ll be alright though — and I appreciate your thoughts.

    Kevin Heldman


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