Shouts And Mallomars

Bonnie Bernstein

bonnie bernstein

bonnie bernstein
New York, New York,
November 02
Starving Writer
Quirky, Edgy Authoress, Phanatically Baseball Lite. Writing the great American smutty memoir. Bonnie's words can be found in places like TheFix, YourTango, Modern Love Rejects, Salon, Petside, Babble, Perils of Divorced Pauline, Newsday and NYResident. Lisa Belkin wrote about Bonnie in Motherlode and Anderson Cooper interviewed her. Follow Bonnie on Twitter: bonnieb_writer


Editor’s Pick
MAY 18, 2011 12:00AM

I Was Turned Down For Food Stamps

Rate: 15 Flag

I drove 30 minutes to the county’s only social services office in my twenty year old Chevy that got seven miles per gallon.  I nicknamed the car my “Mercedes,” feeling so down on myself that that would be the closest I would ever come to having my Benz.  The Caprice was a monster vehicle someone had given me for free at the demise of my Hyundai.  When I finally arrived, I was told by the receptionist that they were no longer taking food stamp applications for the rest of the day.  It was 11:50.  I was instructed to come back tomorrow.  They were breaking for lunch.  When I explained that I would not have enough money to pay for gas to attempt the return trip, she told me I could wait in the sitting area until they finished their sandwiches.  I had not eaten anything that day and had only a packet of crackers with me to munch on.


A divorced Jewish woman in my forties, living in New York State’s Hudson Valley, I didn’t want food stamps.  I didn’t want the cashier at the town’s only supermarket seeing how low I had sunk.  Although I was hungry, I wanted to make it on my own.  A teacher, the only jobs I could find were either low paying like a tour guide or off the books work being a nanny or a counter bitch.  I imagined I would have had to go to Walmart to purchase food.  At that point, no one there knew me.  This was during President Bush’s era (Bush 2), about six years ago.  To kill time, I sat in my day before laundry, chocolate stained jeans next to a box of free hats and dirty mittens, flipping through old Highlights magazines and watched as African American, Hispanic, and white people came in looking for assistance with housing and Medicaid.  Some were disabled using walkers, others brought little children with them.  One single mother told me how she was having trouble finding an apartment she could afford.  She had two young sons.


After the employees were done with their lunch hour, I was buzzed in and led to a back room.  I had to fill out the paperwork again.  It was about ten pages long.  They didn’t like my original answers, saying the money figures didn’t add up.  They requested my landlord’s name and address.  They wanted proof I was divorced.  I was turned down for food stamps.  The car running on empty, I was sent home with a ten dollar Salvation Army gas voucher.  No food in the house, I was given coffee, raw spaghetti and two stale bagels.  The food pantry wouldn’t be open for three more days.  The Rasmussen Report says 40% of the American population thinks it’s too easy to get food stamps.  At least one in seven receive food assistance today.  I wonder how many more have been turned away or just won’t go for the sustenance. 



Five years later, on January 14, 2010, President Obama’s America.  Different administration, same old economic troubles.  This time I was living closer to New York City.  New to the area, I didn’t know where the food pantries were and hadn’t had time yet to start hoarding canned goods.  I didn’t want to apply for food stamps.  I remembered what happened the last time I tried.  Instead of getting the help my former tax dollars were supposed to step in to provide in an emergency, I was a white professional who used to teach and I was looked at suspiciously.  Social Services had made me feel bad, as if I were stealing from the system to get t-bone steaks.  I’m a vegetarian.  A family member convinced me that this time everyone was getting food stamps.  Wearing my black coat lined in rips and black boots with worn soles, I made yet another 30 minute trip to a social services office in yet another old car with barely a drop of gas and, now, a lapsed inspection sticker.  The Old Tanta wouldn’t pass as the brakes didn’t work and I couldn’t afford to get the car fixed.  To evade a ticket, I parked in a lot. 


A young tall black man cornered me as I walked to the office.  He threw me against a wall.  With an adrenaline rush and at 5’1” short, I was able to slide away.  I ran into the street.  My attacker yelled out, “What are you doing!”  No one else was around.  I stumbled into the building I thought I was supposed to go to.  After I went through the metal detector, the guard said I was at the wrong address, the right location a couple of blocks away.  Wheezing because I just realized what had happened and now teary eyed, I told him I had been attacked.  I was directed to the police officer, who was sitting on the side reading a newspaper.  I told the officer I had been pushed up against a building.  He said there was nothing he could do.  He wouldn’t take a report.  Why didn’t I call 911?  Why would I have needed to?  I was afraid to leave the building.  The officer would only walk me to the corner, the same spot where I ran into trouble earlier.  I was alone.  I wandered into the street, thinking it was safer than the sidewalk.


I got to the right office for food stamps.  Went through security.  The insides of my handbag were rummaged through by a guard.  He examined the chapstick, the generic benedryl capsules, the hair brush.  The room was filled with men talking about time spent in jail.  As I filled out the forms, I overheard talk about gangs, time spent and drug busts.   I stood on line.  A woman tried to jump in front of me.  When I got to the clerk’s window, I was told it was too late to apply.  Again, it was 11:50.  They took a look at my address and said I was at the wrong location.  I was met with a blank stare when I mentioned the other office they told me to go to was further away.   Fearing the man who pushed me up against a wall was still around, I did a slow jog in the middle of the street back to the municipal lot and jumped into my car.  I noticed I got a ticket.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
a lot of american 'middleclass' are finding out what life is like for the untouchables. have you considered emigrating?
This is just so darn sad.
I'm speechless in impotent anger at your food stamp, 11.50 people, and your fuckwit of a cop. The only thing that I have seen work on a local level is making people accountable. And the only way I know about that is to create a document trail. And I see from this article you are well able to write. When 'they' see stuff in writing, they know it can go legal, and that their particular talents in "professional discretion" and working inside interpretable 'guidelines' can be scrutinized by third parties. Powerlessness, disenfranchisement, etc, is the tool that bureaucracy uses - by individuating your situation into 'applicability' or not, and 'protecting' your information with 'confidentiality' you are rendered absolutely powerless and silent. But who am I telling??? If you have the time, the energy and the heart, locate others turned down - even if its only 10 in your neighborhood - and start a document trail. Politicize it, make it public via web stories, local papers, town councillors. Sure, you might as well. Mind yourself as you can!
I've definitely been there. You might want to check out While it is not free like a food pantry (I have long stories about expired and rotting food that I've gotten from food banks), it is an inexpensive way to purchase a larger amount of food. You can also contact the Angel Food sites and see if you can get any food that is not claimed the day of distribution.
Bonnie...this is so depressing. I'm so sorry you've had to go through this --- and so glad you are giving voice to it. Everything in this country seems to be stacked against people who are already struggling to survive. Maybe through the writing you are doing - it'll start to change.
You know, when I was on food stamps I never thought of it as "how low I'd sunk." I'd done my part fair and square and now it was time for the system to pony up.

It's people denigrating their lives, apologizing for survival, that allows injustices to continue. There's nothing noble or socially responsible in that, quite the opposite.
Sorry for your trouble, Bonnie. How are you doing now? Have you located the food pantries and soup kitchens that can help you? Have you found a job yet? I hope things are going better for you!
Sorry for your trouble, Bonnie. How are you doing now? Have you located the food pantries and soup kitchens that can help you? Have you found a job yet? I hope things are going better for you!
hang in there and work your network! don't be afraid to stick your hand out, you're not the only one. a lot of people are on the edge
I hope things improve for you. The only advice I can give is to try (!) to feel less powerless (!!) and not at all apologetic.

When I and most of my neighbors were on food stamps in the early '70s I saw two responses to the humiliation much of the world around us wanted to inflict on us. One woman, from a very affluent background, was embarrassed and apologetic and always tried to play the part when she went grocery shopping, wearing her worst clothes and acting humble.

Another woman, an abandoned southern preacher's wife, adopted the "fuck you" attitude, always remembered the ample taxes she had paid forward and went grocery shopping in the expensive leather jacket she had from before she was poor. I think the second attitude was more functional.

Good luck.
So sorry for your troubles...

I was out of working during the dot-com burst and I learned something very important - and that is if you own assets or property you cannot get public assistance. I was getting unemployment and wasn't asking for food stamps - I just wanted my wife and I to get cheaper health insurance. No chance!

This is a warning to most working people - don't expect anything from your government! Assets and property cannot be liquidated quick enough to put food on the table.
And my husband keeps asking me why I want to live in the US. Warmer weather in the winter is all I want. I wouldn't give up Canada for anything. Most of my husband's friends seem to be on food stamps, they're all missing teeth, no one has car insurance so their driver's licences are suspended. What has happened to your country!!????
On the subject of Americans unable to pay for dental work and missing teeth, Peggy Powell hasn't seen much of Canada, I daresay, and none of the boondocks of Atlantic Canada. I swear, as an American, I have never seen so many people with bad teeth and in need of unaffordable dental care. At least Americans have free dental clinics and dentists who provide pro bono care for the indigent who need their services. As for Bonnie, join a nunnery, or a commune, and manage the place. You wont miss food stamps.
Thanks for posting this. Rated.
When I applied for foodstamps, I went through the local domestic violence office. It was a lot easier than trying to go through the local DSS office. She went over the application with me, made sure I had all the paperwork I needed, and sent the application in. It took about two hours.
Even the local newspapers around where I live have taken to running stories about people scamming the government for food assistance, or Medicare, or childcare. It's an all out war on anyone looking for a "handout." Ugly. And this is a very "liberal" area. I asked my neigbors about it, whether they really believe any of this, whether they realize it's all just intended to make people feel a little better about cutting desperately needed programs--mood music for austerity politics--and they say, yeah, they realize that, but still.... Very ugly.

All I can say is try being a single white man trying to get ublic assistance. I never even tried getting unemployment before because I had always quit a job to move to something better as was the case when I moved to Jacksonville Fl. I finally did get approved for food stamps, but did not qualify for anything else, no rent assistance, no help with the utilities, no cash, I was originally told I had have a minor living with me to get any other help, unless I was on the verge of being evicted or having my lights and water cut off, when I was on the verge the numbers I was referred to tell you call at 8am when you get busy signal after busy signal until a recording comes on saying all appointments were booked for the day. Hope you are doing better now, good luck.
We can't feed, let alone house our own, yet there's plenty of borrowed bucks for "that war over there" we're all supposed to be so sure is our own business.
We can't feed, let alone house our own, yet there's plenty of borrowed bucks for "that war over there" we're all supposed to be so sure is our own business.
This story pisses me off. Whatever happened to compassion in America? These are hard times for many, many people and the government makes you feel like a criminal for it.

Then, there's this guy, Leroy Fick in Michigan, who won $2 million last year in a lottery but still unashamedly collects food stamps because the lottery money is not considered income. Makes you want to go ballistic, doesn't it?
A crying shame. The worst part is that there are lots of hipsters getting food stamps who don't need them; they simply dont want to work. I read a out that in big Salon and it made me ill. Hope things get better. Hugs, Erica
Every time I read one of your pieces, I am blown away by what you have experienced, how you've survived, and how well you tell your story. I just wish this were not your -- or anyone's story.
Sorry to hear, Bonnie. Years ago, as a mother of 2 with a worthless-ass husband, I was trying to finish college on grants and loans and working full-time at minimum wage. I went to apply for FS and got turned down. Why? Because I was a full-time student. Never mind I had no money to live, just for tuition and books...God forbid one should try and get OUT of the system but need a little temporary help.
And just like I figured, somebody had to turn your story into a Canada-bashing session. I wish I were surprised at that or at your situation, but this country is full of mean bastards who have no compassion and apparently no connection with reality.
Bonnie ~We all need to read this. It really angers me, but I hope so much that it is making you stronger. (r)
Every civil servant you dealt with has pension and health plans paid for by your tax dollars. It's a racket, and they don't even have to pretend to deliver services. They are neither civil nor servants.
I am so sorry that you're going through this. I know from a friend who did a documentary on the working homeless here in RI that the route to obtain public services is ridiculously convoluted and littered with obstacles--insensitivity and negative stereotypes prominent among them.

For what it's worth, I really, really like your writing style.
This is ofcourse a tragic story. As far as myself, whenever I've seen a social worker for (anything,) they usually roll their eyes at me or say something rude and end up making me feel like sh_t. Also, I suffer from a mental illness and that can affect a person's life in many ways. I've job hopped frequently and have gaps due to this. I was also in Special Education growing up. I was on food stamps but only for 6 months. After that, I was too embarrassed to continue. I've also tried to get job placement help for people with disabilities, but they told me it could take months before I recieve any help so I send out my resume everyday, but obviously due to a mental illness , I've never had a consistant long term job. Remember mental illness Can effect a person's life in different ways. I mention all this because a commenter "Karen" made a remark about how there are "hipsters who don't like working..." I just wanted to say that there are (some) who have diagnosed mental problems or maybe UNdiagnosed mental illnesses etc who have a Hard Time keeping Anything Long Term and who may have lots of gaps. There can be other issues involved when someone's unemployed. That's all I'm saying. PLUS a couple of months ago I lost my fiancee and I'm still grieving over that so that makes it even more difficult.... having a mental illness, dead loved ones (my last grandmother died five months prior to my fiancee.) Anyway, I apologize for the random comments I've made. It was mostly directed for those who assume (everyone) who is unemployed and taking foodstamps is only doing it for fun. There are (some people) who have good reasons. That's all I wanted to say.