Just past Fifth Avenue, where the gourmet food shops shift into dollar stores and Fourteenth Street turns suddenly seedy, there is a squat, metal-sided building that looks like a relic from a half-familiar past. Coated in grime so thick it’s hard to tell whether the striped siding is green or blue, it still bears boxy traces of postwar optimism (it was built in 1946), but mostly it looks haggard, a smile snaggled with broken teeth.
This is the home of the Waverly Food Stamp Center, one of eighteen such centers in New York City. On a recent Monday morning, it was choked with visitors—men, women and kids in strollers—heading to appointments, picking up applications and pressing to get cases reopened. They came in waves, big and constant, which got sucked upward in two tin-can elevators and then spit out into a room that one applicant, Erica, described as “really hot,” “crowded” and “loud.” It was the kind of place where no one seemed to be in control, and where anyone who might be in control didn’t seem to care. And yet somehow, Erica said, the place functioned. Despite hoops and hurdles, visitors frequently walked out with the help they so desperately needed when they came in.
“They do assist you, they do,” said a middle-aged man who asked to be identified by his nickname, Mr. Monk, as he breezed out of the Waverly Center. Mr. Monk had lost his job, then his home, to the recession and had decided to apply for benefits because “I have to eat.” Still waiting to see if his welfare application would be accepted, he’d already received an emergency food stamp disbursement. “Every red penny goes to food.”
Welcome to the food stamp system: decaying, inundated and one of the most unexpectedly effective safety net programs still standing. Indeed, like the crumbling Waverly Center, the food stamp program, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, still stands, still works—remarkably well, all things considered. It may not look pretty, but while other social safety net programs, like public assistance (more commonly called welfare), public housing, Section 8 and even unemployment insurance, have been so thoroughly hobbled that they can no longer respond to the struggles of millions of Americans, the food stamp program has remained surprisingly sensitive to people’s needs. It is one of the defining reasons more Americans were not as immiserated by this recession as they were in eras past.
The statistics tell the story. On any given day, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers participate in the program, using electronic benefit cards to buy bread, milk, cheese and other staples. Across the country, the number is 46.3 million, or one out of every seven people. And thanks to an infusion of $45.2 billion in stimulus money, SNAP has helped millions of unemployed and underemployed recession victims. In 2010 alone, food stamps lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line, the Census Bureau reports. And it did this, continues to do it, despite decades of on-again, off-again neglect, budget cuts and Republican attacks.
“Food stamps are really the only functioning part of the safety net,” says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s the only thing left.”
The question now is, how much longer can the food stamp program withstand the conservative assault on the nation’s safety net? And why haven’t Obama and the Democrats done more to defend such a vital program?